Tryon Palace Christmas


Tryon Palace

Located in New Bern, North Carolina, near the intercoastal waterway, you can experience North Carolina’s colonial past in a beautiful historic building that dates back to 1770. John Hawks, a London architect,  was brought here by Royal Governor William Tryon to build an impressive brick Georgian style structure to house his family and to become the first permanent state capitol of North Carolina.

Doing a demo on outdoor Christmas arrangements at North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace

An invitation to speak at Tryon Palace in North Carolina, gave me an opportunity to see how this colonial palace decorated for the Yuletide season. Similar to Williamsburg style with “della robbia” type of decorations – lots of fruits, pods, and other natural decorations are used. See my post on a Illuminating Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg for more colonial style decorations. Tryon Palace has never been on my radar before but now I can’t believe that I have never heard of it!

Beautiful entry into the Palace; I love the Palm leaf fans that are spray painted

The use of fabric really was stunning and unusual- a treatment that I would love to duplicate. Beautiful fabric swags are  gathered in at the top of the ceiling in the Council Chamber (top photo); The room is used for dancing on Candlelight evenings. The first sessions of the assembly for the State of North Carolina were held here after the revolution and housed the state governors until 1784. After fire destroyed the building in 1789, the building and grounds were rebuilt and restored to its present glory.

Double iron -work gates are decorated with matching wreaths

Classic Williamsburg fruit motifs are used above doorways
Fresh green garlands were used as well as faux and a mix of the two

“Seasons of Giving: A Candlelight Christmas Celebration” was the theme this year with the Candlelight tradition at Tryon Palace in its 37th year. Decorations were inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, historic characters in period clothing were present, and holiday vignettes spanning across three centuries were shown. For a schedule, go to Tryon Palace’s website. Too late for most things this year, I am going to try to make it next year.

Definitely Tryon Palace warrants a visit just to see the fabulous gardens, that look good even in December.

Encompassing more than 16 acres of gardens and landscapes, the Palace gardens were designed by noted landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams in the 1950s and represent the formal garden style of 18th-century Britain.

For Christmas decorating, 29 volunteers, among the other staff of Tryon Palace, help out. Moving objects, creating faux food displays, coordinating holiday tours, and assisting with adhering to “period correctness” are all part and parcel of the many details of creating a special Christmas experience. Hadley Cheris, Gardens and Greenhouse Manager, is the point person for all this activity, and is energetic and knowledgeable about the creation of the historic decorations.

Volunteers at work at Tryon Palace

For more posts on decorating period houses, go to Hampton Mansion.  The importance of using age appropriate materials – like fruits, pods, and fresh greens – that were available during the historic period is important to keep the antique context of the house.

Dried pods and flowers appropriate for period decorating
Dried flowers for sale in Williamsburg

The 29 volunteers contributed over 250 hours of work over a week and a half period. Decorating begins November 13 and is completed on November 22  at Tryon Palace. Included in the decorating are three historic homes, the exteriors of 13 buildings, and seven large entryways/gates.

Fruit fan with pineapples
Entry steps to Tryon Palace
Closeup of the rosettes on swag
Closeup of an arrangement
I love the fabric draping of the staircase

Candlelight tours are popular as well as circus acts, history vignettes, Jonkonnu troupe (African-American holiday celebration), music performances, and candlelit grounds are all part of the Tryon Palace experience. For more information, go to Tryon Palace.

Biltmore-The Ultimate Yuletide Destination

All lit up for Christmas, photo from The Biltmore Company
A festive stone lion at the front door, photo from The Biltmore Company

America’s largest home, Biltmore, was the vision of George W Vanderbilt who built the 250-room French Renaissance Chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The estate encompasses over 8,000 acres which includes gardens designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.

A towering 55 foot spruce in front of the house is hung with large stars; It is lit for Candlelight Christmas Evenings
Hundreds of these stars were on the spruce tree

A tradition that goes back 120 years, Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, transforms into a Yuletide extravaganza from November 3, 2017 to January 7, 2018. I had the opportunity to travel to that area of the country  a few weeks ago and was blown away with the decorations celebrating the theme – “A Vanderbilt Christmas”. Getting in the spirit of Christmas as you go through the house is exciting as you see the amazing decorations. A 250 room house, Biltmore is so large that any decorations could look lost, but there are 55 trees in the house and another 45 trees scattered throughout the estate and everything is done on a grand scale.

Bows & Ribbon

More than 1000 bows are used inside the house with twice that many in the surrounding estate. Velvets, metallics, burlap, satin, and printed cotton are all used with a blue velvet one my favorite.

This jeweled cobalt blue velvet ribbon was my favorite

In the Banquet Hall, there are two trees flanking the triple fireplaces; 1000 yards of ribbon were used to create these ribbon swirls!
Detail of the multi-looped bow on top of the tree; it takes 15 yards of ribbon for these!
Rosettes of ribbon held up the garlands in the Banquet Hall
I loved how the ribbon ends were scrolled
Another beautiful tree topper

Think “Gilded Age”, a period of economic prosperity in the U.S. from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, the age of The Titanic, and you will see evidence of this everywhere. These weren’t simple decorations – lavish, elaborate, and rich were the words that came to mind when I entered the house.

George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House for the first time to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. Biltmore’s Christmas events are based on what has been learned from the archives about that first holiday celebration.

On the day the tree arrives on November 1, hundreds of people line up to see the show

The Changing of the Firs

Since 1975, the Andrews family of North Carolina, has supplied the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir trees that are erected in the seven-story-high Banquet Hall during each holiday. A side of their mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains dedicated to the estate, the Andrews family grows these trees especially for Biltmore’s holiday celebration.

One of the 35 foot Fraser firs being roped into place in the banqueting hall, photo from The Biltmore Company

Taking approximately 50 Biltmore staff members to carry in, raise, and secure the Fraser Fir in the Banquet Hall, I was amazed to learn that the tree is replaced mid-season!  Because of fire safety of the house, the replacement comes in around 4 AM of the day it is to be replaced and everyone rushes to decorate and is finishing it up by 9 AM when the first guests arrive. In addition, the fresh garlands of white pine and Fraser Fir are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance!

The Banquet Hall was decorating in blue, silver, and green

Wreaths & Kissing Balls

Wreaths are made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir, with sprays of golden arborvitae, holly, or other natural materials such as twigs and cones. About 360 fresh wreaths are used as well as 130 faux pieces are placed around the estate. Over 100 kissing balls, both fresh and faux are used, some with the signature topper bow.

Different types of kissing balls

Gilded Age Decor

A unique time in American history, the Gilded Age included the construction of grand and elegant estates filled with high society and glamorous parties. Rich layers of color accented with metallic touches of gold, silver, and platinum reflects the luxury of the times.

Fans decorate the trees in the library

Fans decorate the trees in the library

Tapestry Gallery

A huge rectangular room, the Tapestry Gallery contains tapestries from 1500’s Flanders woven from silk and wool. These were intended to show how the seven virtues−faith, prudence, charity, chastity, temperance, fortitude and justice−would always prevail over vice.

Multiple trees line the Tapestry Gallery

The Nativity Scene

Christmas Traditions

Starting on Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt welcomed his family and friends for the first time to his new home in North Carolina, the family started a tradition. He and his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, spent many Christmases together in Biltmore House, and started a gift-giving tradition that is still honored today. Mr. Vanderbilt’s descendants – the Cecil family, now the estate’s owners and caretakers – host the annual employee holiday party, just like the Vanderbilt’s did. Making sure each child of the estate employees receives a gift, an employee party is held. A team fills the Winter Garden floor with more than 1,000 wrapped gifts for the party and Santa and the Cecil’s will hand them out to each child.

I love this mantle decorated with an unusual treatment of garland

The Conservatory

Tall arched windows look out onto the terraced butterfly garden and the Walled Garden beyond, and the pointed glass roof lets in an abundance of natural light at the Conservatory, a short distance from the house.

The Conservatory overlooks the walled garden



Beautiful mantle in the conservatory
Orchid wreath at the conservatory
Bromeliad tree in Conservatory


There are over 1,000 traditional poinsettias found in the Christmas displays around the estate, along with over 1,000 Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, orchids, peace lilies, cyclamen, begonias, and kalanchoe and potted green plants.

A Decorating Heritage

Seven full time floral designers as well as 14 staff on the floral reserve team starts very early for the onslaught of over 300,000 visitors. It takes lots of help from Engineering, Housekeeping, Museum Services, Horticulture, Guest Services, Security, and Events, to make the magic happen. Read an interesting article about Kathy Barnhardt who was the Floral Displays Manager for 40 years at Biltmore. Kathy started fresh from college at Biltmore with decorating just five trees in the house from paper ornaments that she and her mother cut out! She just retired this year, but she certainly started many of the decorating traditions seen today.

The theme is selected a year in advance, and the preliminary work in a warehouse starts in July. Actual decorating of the house commences in October. Sounds like a White House Christmas! See my post on Decorating the White House .

What’s Next?- Titanic Exhibition

One of the costumes on display at Biltmore, photo from the Biltmore company

The first exhibition of fashions from “Titanic,” the Oscar-winning film that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, will launch at Biltmore in February 2018 in “Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie.” Set for Feb. 9 through May 13, 2018, the exhibition represents the extensive wardrobes preferred by transatlantic travelers like George and Edith Vanderbilt in the early 1900s.

More Images


Time Honored Traditions-Decorating the White House 2017

Volunteering at the White House for Christmas is a bucket list item for many people. It is a great honor to be accepted to decorate at the White House and I have written about previous years. This year was the third time that I participated and I always meet people at the White House who have applied after reading about my experiences and been accepted.

Great friendships are formed between the volunteers


Mandy Tucker Barkley and her sister Reisha Rust are both talented designers

Lots of people apply, so if you are enthusiastic about Christmas decorating, have experience with designing or decorating, and enjoy working as a team, you have a good chance of being accepted. Most of your day is spent standing or climbing ladders and scaffolding, and doing such tasks as rewiring Christmas ornaments for hours at a time. But as anyone will tell you, its lots of fun meeting like-minded people from all over the country and being part of a cohesive, passionate and caring team of people. I love it!!  The best part is the friendships that are formed that last a long time.

Cinda Baize with long-time decorator Bill Hixson who has participated in decorating for 37 years!
Touring the Willard Hotel in D.C. with my fellow decorators

Over 150 volunteers from 29 states were selected. Everyone works during Thanksgiving week for a partial week or the entire week. I elected to work the entire week and since I live within driving distance, I drove home for my holiday meal. But others who were flying in to work, found a local restaurant for Thanksgiving.

Getting ready to go the volunteer reception

Around 12,000 ornaments, 53 trees, and 71 wreaths, were used to transform the state floor and the lower level into a winter wonderland.  The theme “Time-Honored Traditions” was designed by First Lady Melania Trump to pay homage to 200 years of holiday traditions at the White House.

Taking selfies outside the White House

Monday morning before Thanksgiving at 6AM, we all gathered in the lobby of a D.C. hotel and started our first day of work. The first few days we worked at an offsite warehouse doing prep work, like wiring new ornaments and removing old wires from recycled ornaments. Many ornaments are recycled from previous years and are stored from year to year. Another team worked at the White House early, wiring up the many Christmas trees with lights.

Many ornaments are reused from previous years

I along with a helper, worked on four different boxwood topiaries. Two were double ball topiaries and the others were large ( 12-15″ diameter)single balls. Tedious and exacting work, inserting short lengths of fresh boxwood into the Styrofoam took us almost two days. Others were working on wiring ornaments, organizing room boxes, making Cricut paper cutouts for garlands and trees, wiring garlands together, and going through old ornaments.

One of the boxwood topiaries that I worked on
I worked with a team that made these beautiful tree skirts edged in gold ribbon
Marcie worked on these beautiful dark green bows and the mantels in the East room
The fresh garlands were extremely heavy and took 4-5 people to carry, picture from Theresa Cardell Houston
I worked in the Blue Room which included an 18.5′ tall tree and the mantel

Volunteers and staff at the White House were always cheerful and accommodating and each person had a story to tell about how they applied and got chosen. I met some old friends from previous years and caught up.

Deanna Berry helped me out with the topiaries and tree skirts
I worked with Theresa in 2015 in the Blue Room; here she is with her husband Don, photo from Theresa Cardell Houston

Blue Room

I was thrilled to work in the Blue Room again as it is the center of the State Floor with a breath-taking view of the South Lawn. Oval shaped, the Blue Room has been the traditional place for presidents to formally receive guests. After making and placing some “ribbon bursts” on the beautiful State tree, I moved on to decorate the mantel. I love doing mantels, more so than decorating trees, so I was excited. After the huge garlands were placed on the mantel we wired the garlands up with tiny white lights. Making sure that the wires were concealed by fresh greenery, I and my helper Cherry, labored on the garland for several hours, pushing the wire into the body of the garland. We ended up adding five strands of lights to completely cover it. The ends of the garland were left to “puddle” on either side for an elegant rich look.

Many garlands, like these in the East Room, puddled on the floor on either side
Blue Room mantel details

Adding large blue velvet bows with dove-tailed ends in the center and on either side started the process of decorating the garland. Antique gold oak leaves, state seal balls, and large gold balls were added to the garland which mirrored what was used on the towering tree in the center of the room. More blue velvet ribbon pieces were added weaving through the garland and I added large gold sprayed sugar cones on either side dangling from gold-wired ribbon. Being careful that the garland doesn’t touch the walls and possibly damage them, the whole process took about a day and a half to complete.

Completed Blue Room mantel

Each of the gold state seal balls were engraved with all 56 state and territory seals and I made sure to include a variety on the mantel.

Presidential Seal above the Blue Room door

Green Room

My next favorite room was the Green Room which is dedicated to crafts, paper, and classic design. Covered in a delicate green silk fabric chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy and striped cream, white, and coral drapes and furniture, it is located adjacent to the Blue Room. Because of its proximity, I checked on the decorating progress frequently and was awed by the silhouettes and Cricut cut pine cones and mistletoe. Cricut is the brand name of an electronic cutting machine that looks like a printer. Intricate botanical shapes were produced in the warehouse and then put together to form beautiful forms on the Green Room mantel and tree.

The White House calligrapher created the ‘Merry Christmas’ banner
Gold silhouettes were hand cut of president’s profile
Green Room tree
Detail of the Cricut paper tree box; this was on all four sides
Detail of the beautiful green striped ribbon with Cricut cut shapes
Framed vignette scenes were hung in both windows by the same beautiful ribbon; They depicted previous first families celebrating Christmas with their families
More framed silhouettes and cut paper trees were placed on tables throughout the room

Red Room

On the other side of the Blue Room is the Red Room with carmine red walls and drapes, an Aubusson carpet, and a gilded wood French chandelier.

Red Room tree

A peppermint candy theme was carried throughout the room with apothecary jars placed on the tree, mantel and sideboards. Exploding with lollipops, crushed candy, old-fashioned ribbon candies and red and white cookies (all real), the room was alive with color. The plaid red and white wired ribbon was gorgeous and paired perfectly with the white ribbon edged in red. The tree box similar to the Green Room was faced with Cricut paper pieces with an iced cookie from the White House kitchen topping everything off.

Glass apothecary jars were attached to the mantel
An explosion of candy in the Red Room

Cross Hall

The trees in the Cross Hall were carefully decorated with fake snow


Billowy snow was placed at the base of the trees; uplighting enhanced the fairy tale look

The Cross Hall runs East to West on the main floor of the White House connecting the East Room and the State Dining Room and includes the Grand Foyer.  A forest of trees decorated with crystal ornaments and glittery snow greeted visitors as they entered.

Towering trees of snow and crystal

The decorations celebrated the first themed White House Christmas, which was the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ in 1961, To create depth on the trees, we placed the ornaments close to the trunk as well as towards the outer tips of the branches. Light strands were treated the same way; The string of Christmas lights was twisted around the branch from trunk to branch tip and wrapped back to the trunk to start on another branch.

East Room

The East Room is the largest room in the White House and used as a reception room. The trees here were decorated with a gorgeous emerald-green velvet ribbon with a shiny gold reverse. I was part of the team that cut out the matching tree skirts and the ribbon was used to edge the hem for an elegant touch.

East Room tree skirts

Bursts of emerald-green ribbon were added to the trees with ornaments in varying hues of green for a lush elegant look. The mantels were treated similarly.

East Room mantel
Bow detail
A nativity scene is on display in the East Room

East Colonnade 

The long hallway in the East Wing is always a great decorating opportunity. In 2015, I loved the snowflake theme. But this year, the towering frosty branches that arched overhead were a sight to behold.

East Wing frosty branches

Up lighting the branches created a magical feeling at night.

Dining Room

The Dining Room mantel in gold and silver
Dangling ornaments on Dining Room mantel

Vermeil Room

The Vermeil Room contains portraits of First Ladies and houses the silver-gilt collection or “Gold-Ware” which is on display. I love the portraits that decorate this room and the decorations pick up the gold theme.

Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson over looks the room
Detail of mantel
Eleanor Roosevelt has an interesting portrait in the Vermeil Room
Detail of the beautiful beaded tree skirt in the Vermeil Room
Portrait of Mamie Eisenhower


The library contained a Christmas tree made out of books- a novel approach to a Christmas tree! The books were artistically stacked on a tiered shelf with boxwood peeking out from the “trunk”.

Boxwood was behind the books

In a glass case next to the Library’s mantel is a copy of Charles Dickens’  “Christmas Carol” that belonged to Franklin Roosevelt who was said to read it to his family on Christmas Eve.

Diplomatic Reception

The Diplomatic Reception Room tree next to the historic wallpaper

One of three oval rooms in the White House, the Diplomatic Reception Room is papered in antique French scenic wallpaper. I loved seeing the details of the wall paper which was obtained by Jacqueline Kennedy.

One of the scenes on the wallpaper

One of the most interesting feature of the Diplomatic Reception Room is that a previously unused chimney was opened up in 1935, and a new mantel and fireplace installed for Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats.”

The gold eagle was a flag pole topper!

Gold Star Tree

The Gold Star tree honors service members and their families, particularly those who have given their lives for our country. Decorated with gold stars and patriotic ribbon, the tree is interactive, allowing visitors to write holiday messages to service members.


First Lady Melania Trump thanks all the volunteers for their hard work, picture from Theresa Cardell Houston

To cap off our hard work decorating, we were treated to a volunteer reception where we could see the results of everyone’s hard work revealed. Lamb chops, tenderloin, smoked salmon, and lots of other goodies are laid out in a buffet. And the White House has the best mac and cheese and egg nog ever!

The volunteer reception in the Dining Room
Spread of food at volunteer reception
The gingerbread house was covered in pastillage, a sugar based dough that dries hard
Detail of the wreaths on the gingerbread White House; fresh green wreaths were placed in the same windows on the real White House
The White House kitchen produces thousands of iced sugar cookies for parties
First day at the White House

For previous posts on decorating at the White House, go to Decorating the White House-Past and Present, and White House 2015.


Outdoor Seasonal Containers

Simple Fall container with nandina berries and foliage, orange-tinged fothergillia, and hydrangea blossoms

What do you do with a container on your front porch once you have yanked out those sorry-looking frost-killed petunias?

Segue into the holiday season with beautiful fall/winter containers using “yard” material. As a landscape designer, my first consideration in planting any tree or shrub is – Can I use it in my seasonal containers? Yellow, red, orange twig dogwoods, evergreens with variegated foliage, magnolias, winterberry, red-berried viburnums, interesting evergreens like cedar and thujopsis, and ruby rose hips, are planted on my property with one motive in mind; Are they useful in arrangements inside and outside?

Make it Simple Directions

Keep the old soil in place and cut off at soil line old plants, and you have an instant palette to play with that can take you into the holidays and beyond. The trick is to complete your masterpiece before the ground freezes as you can’t stick anything into a frozen pot.

Start with a full pot of soil


Use an inexpensive wreath on top of the container to cover your edges

Using a preformed wreath will save you some steps in the process of creating an outdoor arrangement. In the above example, I used a 15″ diameter pot topped with a 18″ diameter wreath. You have instant soil coverage and a beautiful base to start with.

Insert your thriller sticks or uprights in the center of the wreath. Here I used yellow twig dogwood, one of my favorites.

Start inserting your largest leaves first. In this case, I use Brown’s Bracken Magnolia with a lovely brown felted reverse. Insert your branches directly through the base wreath.

Add other contrasting foliage, some feathery white pine and yellow tinged false cypress to pick up the yellow twigs. Chunky birch logs and orange winter berry sticks are added last for color. I placed an over-sized Christmas ball in the container but ultimately decided to not use it. Finish it off with a gold three-layered bow.

Layering ribbon makes a lush bow

More Options

Lots of Magnolia paired with gold lotus
The addition of fall tinged Oakleaf Hydrangea adds a lot to this arrrangement
I left a growing variegated ivy here which will last all year long
Red rose hips shine in the sunlight
Here I used some red dyed eucalyptus

Created and photographed by Amy Sparwasser

Illuminating The Season in Colonial Williamsburg

Holiday wreath made with dried flowers at Williamsburg
Holiday wreath made with dried flowers at Williamsburg

Ah… a Williamsburg Christmas!

Doesn’t that bring to mind fruit fans and apple cones and pineapple motifs? A hot toddy sitting by Christiana Campbell’s Tavern giant fireplace? And horses clopping down the Duke of Gloucester street adorned with boughs of holly and candlelit windows?

Governors Palace at night

Visiting the historic area of Williamsburg during the Christmas season for the purpose of admiring the door decorations, you think that the colonial people started a great tradition and were extremely creative.

Okra pods, the pointy pods outlining the wreath were used a lot in the decorations
Okra pods, the pointy pods outlining the wreath, are used a lot in the decorations

Contemporary Tradition

But contrary to popular thought, the tradition of hanging fruits, pods, oyster shells, veggies, and other kinds of plant life on your front door started in the mid part of the twentieth century – not in colonial times. Anyone in the colonial period who would waste perfectly good fruit and place it outside to be eaten by deer or squirrels would be committed into the “Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds”! But in the early Twentieth century, Christmas was growing in significance and there was a Colonial Revival going on.

A simple fan of Magnolia leaves and wheat
A simple fan of Magnolia leaves, cotton burrs, chili peppers, yarrow, and wheat

Decoration Birthplace-Au Naturel

Starting in 1936, the decorations were  simply a few plain wreaths and roping to decorate the Governor’s Palace and Raleigh’s Tavern. Mrs Louise Fisher, placed in charge of flowers and Christmas decorations, went to the library where she turned up examples of period examples from English and American sources that she could imitate- like Grinling Gibbons, master carver to George I in England. Gibbons carved festoons of fruit, flowers, and other bits of nature in borders that decorated Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. By 1939, her “Della Robbia” look was attracting attention and the “Williamsburg Christmas” look was born. It became so popular that in 1969, the Christmas decorations tour began and became hugely popular. Instruction courses, books, article, and how-to workshops followed.

Bird nibbling on berries in a swag
Bird nibbling on berries in a swag

Every Christmas, the exhibition buildings, homes and shops of Colonial Williamsburg are decorated with wreaths and garlands of natural materials for the holiday season. The arrangements go up right after Thanksgiving and remain to January 6th and are hand-made by the employees of Williamsburg on houses in the Historic Area. The flower arranging staff of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is responsible for the whimsical and imaginative work for all the buildings in the Historic Area that are open to the public.

Hops, pine cones, and oranges
Decorating the millinery shop
Decorating the millinery shop
Wreath with drummer boy was made for the William Pitt shop which sells a lot of toys
Made for  the William Pitt shop which sells a lot of toys, this drummer boy wreath is unusual
Apples are used extensively in wreaths
Used extensively in wreaths, apples, berries, and boxwood, are a tradition


Private residences in the Historic Area are decorated by the occupants.

You can buy your own authentic Williamsburg wreath in the Historic Area
You can buy your own authentic Williamsburg wreath in the Historic Area


There is a hotly contested competition for best and most creative arrangements. The rules are: Everything must be ALL natural, and only items that would have been in Virginia in the 1700’s can be part of the arrangement. That meant no ribbons, bows, fake fruit, Poinsettia, pepper berries, and eucalyptus.

Outside Chownings Tavern is a wreath constructed with oyster shells
Outside Chownings Tavern is a wreath constructed with scallop shells and drinking mugs
Oyster shells play the starring role in this wreath
Oyster shells play the starring role in this wreath, along with quince, pomegranates, artichokes, cinnamon, and sumac

Judged by categories, the arrangements are one of the following: professionally made, hand-made by an amateur, and made by Williamsburg employee in the floral department. Checked daily, the arrangements are refreshed for anything that might have wilted or been consumed by wildlife!


Entrance to Governors Palace
Festive entrance to Governors Palace

You can purchase your own accessories for decorating your house
You can purchase your own accessories for decorating your house

The appeal of these decorations are that they are hand made of natural materials, things that you have cut or collected from your yard, woodland, or beach. Bucking the trend of plastic trees and artificial reindeer, the naturalness is what makes these designs endure. Having the decorations up for up to six weeks, means that you have to use durable dried materials and replenish them if they disintegrate. “Floral cages”, a container that holds wet floral foam to keep things fresh, are popular for this reason.

Fresh pears, strawflowers, and wheat
Fresh pears, straw flowers, and wheat
Osage oranges, dried okra, and cockscomb
Osage oranges, dried okra, dusty miller, and cockscomb

Pineapple Motif

No one knows for certain exactly how the pineapple became an essential element in the Christmas decorations of Colonial Williamsburg, but a look at the history of this common 21st century fruit reveals some clues. Because the exterior of the fruit resembled the pine cone, and the sweet fruit was similar to the texture and taste of an apple, the name changed from its original “anana” to pineapple. A sought-after delicacy in colonial America, the pineapple was considered a sign of the highest form of hospitality because of its rarity and sweet taste.

p1110975By the 1930s, the pineapple was already a well established design element in architecture, ceramics, and art. It only stands to reason, then, that beautiful fresh pineapples would become the centerpiece for the creative decorations for which Colonial Williamsburg is known today.


Green lotus pods make this wreath stand out
Green lotus pods make this wreath stand out

To read more about the history and see more pictures of decorations over the years, see Christmas in Colonial America.

All pictures are courtesy of Amy Sparwasser.

Holly Love-The Art of Wreath Making at McLean Nursery

McLean Nurseries workshop
McLean Nurseries workshop
Boxwood trees ready for sale
Boxwood trees ready for sale

Decking the halls with boughs of holly is a Christmas tradition that goes back centuries, rooted in Pagan times and plays a pivotal role in Christianity. The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion and the berries are the drops of blood shed by Jesus. Celtic people of pre-Christian Ireland and England used holly extensively, decorating their homes throughout the Winter Solstice, and Druids thought hollies had mystical powers. Seen as a powerful fertility symbol and a charm to ward off witches and ill-fortune, holly was often planted near homes for this reason. McLean Nurseries in Parkville, Maryland has a plethora of different varieties of holly planted around the property, so they must have only good luck there!

The nine acres of the nursery are widely planted with evergreen and deciduous hollies and magnolias
Nine acres of the nursery are widely planted with evergreen and deciduous hollies, and magnolias
Deciduous hollies are fenced because of deer
Deciduous hollies are fenced because of deer

The genus Ilex is a popular winter evergreen in gardens, and is easy to grow on any well-drained soil. Grown as a free-standing small specimen tree is common, but it’s ability to resprout from cut stems makes it an ideal hedge plant. The berries are a key part of the holly’s charm, and can come in a range of colors, like yellow, orange and different shades of red. Deciduous hollies, Ilex verticillata, lose their leaves in the fall to display tightly packed berries clothing the stems.  

A peach colored deciduous holly
A peach colored deciduous holly

McLean Nurseries has grown hollies on their nine acres for over 70 years. Many Ilex introductions originated here with the best known one Ilex opaca, ‘Satyr Hill’, named for the street the nursery is on. I planted a hedge of ‘Satyr Hill’ three years ago to create a wind break at the back of my property and I love this variety for its toughness, beauty, and ease of growth. Bill Kuhl, the owner of McLean, grows more than 100 cultivars of Holly and lots of varieties of the deciduous ones, Ilex verticilatta. Other shrubs like Boxwood, Hydrangea, Viburnum, and native perennials are sold at McLean and garden clubs are welcome to tour the nursery.

An array of cut greens and berries for sale
An array of cut greens and berries for sale

Propagating cuttings in cold frames, many thousands of hollies are grown and sold every year at McLean. The busiest time of year at McLean is Christmas, with the business of decorating hundreds of Balsam Fir wreaths for the public and churches. Visiting McLean recently to see the beautifully designed wreaths that will end up far and wide in the Baltimore area, I love to see the varieties of holly and greens that create a Tapestry of Holly. A great nursery that keeps a low profile, McLean has introduced many new cultivars to the trade that are widely used today and have attained ‘Holly of the Year’ status.

A beautiful variegated holly
A beautiful variegated holly
If you want to decorate your house, McLean Nurseries has many fresh cut greens
If you want to decorate your house, McLean Nurseries has many fresh-cut greens, like this Magnolia
Greens are weighed and priced by the pound
Greens are weighed and priced by the pound

Wreath Making Process

Wreath making is serious business at McLean. Starting with a base of Balsam Fir, different varieties of greens, including the much-loved holly are layered in to make a lush looking wreath. Inserting picked greens into the base allows you to mix and match all different colors and textures into a wreath. No glue is used. Handwork which is very labor intensive makes the McLean wreaths both beautiful and special, but are resonably priced.

Tips of berry full holly branches are cut and wrapped with a metal pick maker to add to the wreath base
Tips of berry full holly branches are cut and wrapped with a metal pick maker to add to the wreath base

Workers at McLean use an old-fashioned pick machine which attaches a metal pin around a flower stem making it easier to insert into the balsam fir base. I have one of these hard to find contraptions and it is ingenious in making mixed picks of florals quickly and efficiently.

A Steelpix pick machine attaches metal picks to your greens by pressing down on a lever
A Steelpix pick machine attaches metal picks to your greens by pressing down on a lever
A pick ready to be inserted into a wreath
A pick ready to be inserted into a wreath
A wreath stand that acts like an easel to hold up the wreath
A wreath stand that acts like an easel to hold up the wreath


Wreath stand with Balsam Fir base ready to be decorated
Wreath stand with Balsam Fir base ready for decorating

Wreaths are all hand crafted and range in size from 14″ to a huge wreath that can measure 36″ in size for large areas. Green holly, variegated holly, winterberries, incense cedar, blue-berried juniper, magnolia, andromeda, boxwood, and false cypress are inserted using picks. Next pine cones, fruits, and other pods are added. Space for a gorgeous bow is left on the wreath, with the bow wired on as the final touch.

Sugar Pine cones are cut into thirds to make these "flower" like decorations
Sugar Pine cones are cut into thirds to make these “flower” like decorations

Made to order for people who visit every year to pick up their special wreath, each one is unique.

Miriam, the chief wreath maker, stand proudly next to a special ordered wreath
Miriam, the chief wreath maker, stands proudly next to a special ordered wreath
Red ribbon and berries make this wreath pop
Red ribbon and berries make this wreath pop
Closeup of cones, balls, and sugared fruit
Closeup of cones, balls, and sugared fruit
Variegated boxwood stands out on this wreath
Variegated boxwood stands out on this wreath


Ribbon is like icing on the cake. Wired, wide ribbon with big loopy bows and lavish tails is essential to make a wreath stand out from the crowd. Red is a favorite, but gold is right up there in popularity.

Variety of ribbons
Variety of ribbons ready to be made into bows
I call this "Winterberry" ribbon. I love the red and white contrast.
I call this “Winterberry” ribbon with the red and white contrast
The plaid ribbon give this wreath a down home look
Plaid ribbon gives this wreath an elegant down home look
Making picks that will go into wreaths, Bill Kuhl, the owner is on the right
Helpers making picks that will go into wreaths; Bill Kuhl, the owner is on the right taking a break

If you want to order your own hand-made wreath or deck your halls with fresh greens, drive over to 9000 Satyr Hill Rd, in Parkville, Maryland before Christmas. Wreaths, swags, boxwood trees, centerpieces, and greens are reasonably priced and guaranteed to create an instant festive touch to your home.

I love the red and white scheme of this wreath
‘Winterberry’ ribbon on wreath
Turnips used in a wreath

Christmas Wreath-Ordinary to Extraordinary


Decorated Christmas wreaths are a snap using a pre-made wreath base from a garden center or grocery store. The pre-made wreaths created with basic greens make a fine base but adding some additional greens, berries, and ribbon, takes the ordinary to extraordinary.  Below is my base which I purchased at a local store-basic fir branches wired onto a base. Nothing wrong with it all-just could be better!

Starting with a basic wreath base
Starting with a basic wreath base

After trolling through my landscape which has quite a few evergreens and berried shrubs, I added incense cedar, boxwood, and magnolia leaves which really add a textural improvement. My containers grew a bumper crop of Eucalyptus which I preserved with a glycerin solution and I wired some clumps up for a grey green hue. Some variegated white pine added some additional color and texture. Big difference….yes? Oh, and I hot glued all of this onto the base. No wiring, which takes too much time and effort. I find gluing is efficient and quick.
Wire your clumps together before gluing onto the wreath
Wire your clumps together before gluing onto the wreath


After these additions to the base materials, it was time to amp up the color with berries and ribbon. Gold is one of my favorite colors for wreaths and other decorations, so I chose this beautiful gold wired ribbon and added nandina berries for color and staying power. A find at my local craft store, the gold leaf ornaments added some glitter and dimension. Again, these were all glued in place.

Christmas wreath

Hung and ready for the holidays
Hung and ready for the holidays

For more ideas on wreaths, go to my post A Tapestry of Holly-McLean Nursery. Below is a masterpiece made to order at McLean, using the signature McLean hollies and winterberry.



Deck the Halls-Homemade Decorating for the Holidays

An outdoor arrangement on a covered porch or deck can use beautiful fall foliage and evergreens from the garden
An outdoor arrangement on a covered porch or deck can use beautiful fall foliage and evergreens from the garden

Grab your glue gun, pruners, or pastry bag, and browse your favorite Pinterest boards and blogs. Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner, and I’ll be serving up a hearty helping of crafting inspiration to get your house ready for the onslaught of family and friends. Rounding up my favorite posts on decorating for the holidays and adding new, these are inspiration for anyone who has a mantle, tabletop, or front porch/patio to add some holiday cheer.

Mantels and Living Spaces

Mantel in cobalt blues, teal, and lime green
Mantel in cobalt blues, teal, and chartreuse-Mantel Magic

A well-styled and accessorized fireplace mantel has lots of layers and harmonizing colors. A neutral background helps set it off perfectly. For how-to on creating the perfect mantel,  go to Mantel Magic to see step by step on layering for a lush look as well as some White House examples when I worked at the White House. Arranging a sofa or sectional to create an intimate family space or a place to set your Christmas tree is also important during the holidays.

Decorated mantel in the Vermeil room at the White House
Decorated mantel in the Vermeil room at the White House-White House Decorating

A mantel of silver pine cones at the White House
A mantel of silver pine cones at the White House

Miniature House & Gardens

Miniature gardens are fun to create with kids as well as adults and you can accessorize them for the season with tree ornaments or mini village finds at your local craft store. Go to Fairytale Christmas or Miniature Christmas Garden Craze for ideas on gifts for yourself or others on DIY dish gardens or terrariums. Bringing nature in for house bound people, these are always a hit to give and receive. Set one on your desk at work in your cubicle to look at when you need a dose of green, living things.


Christmas miniature garden

Baking and decorating a gingerbread house every year is a tradition at my house and gingerbread house parties are a big hit with my family. Fairytale Christmas has great examples of Gingerbread creations. Storing my Gingerbread houses in plastic over the years gives me the opportunity to enjoy these all over again.

White House veggie garden in frosting
My brother-in-law is very intent on finishing his lighthouse gingerbread house
Gingerbread house with gum drop garden
Gingerbread house with gum drop garden


Easy to grow succulents with juicy leaves, stems, and roots have always been fascinating to me as a great architectural touchable plant. Working/crafting with them for Christmas was a natural for me and they make perfect little decorated trees that last and grow as a beautiful miniature tree. For how-to on making a succulent tree, go to Succulent Christmas. 

Succulents are inserted into a moss and wire form and will root and grow
Succulents can be inserted into a moss and wire form and will root and grow

For a different twist on terrariums, try planted succulents, inserted with white pumpkins, cymbidium orchids, ornamental balls, beaded wire, and tiny lights. A wonderful centerpiece for a holiday table or as a entrance table eye catcher.img_0955


 Outdoor Fresh Arrangements

For fresh arrangements to place on your front porch to greet visitors and last for months, go to Grand Entrance to see how fast you can put together a stunner. Using a base of a pre-made evergreen wreath and other greens, you can simply push the stems into potting soil of old containers from the summer. When the weather turns freezing, the inserted stems just freeze into place and last for months. Here are some examples of fall containers that can transition into winter and can continue to greet guests for months to come.

A beautiful fall arrangement of orange Fothergillia foliage, Nandina berries, Hydrangeas - done by Sally Barker
A beautiful fall arrangement of orange Fothergillia foliage, Nandina berries, Hydrangeas; when the Fothergillia foliage drops, add some evergreen branches – done by Sally Barker
Outdoor arrangement with golden arborvitae, red twig dogwood, seeded eucalyptus, nandina berries, and thujopsis
Outdoor arrangement with golden arborvitae, red twig dogwood, seeded eucalyptus, nandina berries,  thujopsis, white pine
Peach winterberry, magnolia, gold arborvitae, yellow twig dogwood, and red dyed eucalyptus
Peach winterberry, magnolia, gold arborvitae, yellow twig dogwood, and red dyed eucalyptus
Rose hips (red) are the star here

Indoor Arrangements

Fresh holiday arrangements are easily whipped up in minutes after you gather the right materials for an indoor show. Holidays are a great time to force Amaryllis too. Amaryllis bulbs are inexpensive and in bloom can last for a full month of color. Go to Amaryllis Primer and Amaryllis Planter for more information on forcing these and incorporating the bulbs into arrangements.

Amaryllis bulbs can be inserted in fresh greens arrangements
Amaryllis bulbs can be inserted in fresh greens arrangements
'Red Lion' Amaryllis in full bloom
‘Red Lion’ Amaryllis in full bloom-Amaryllis Primer


A growing lemon cypress in a birch container decorated with drieds
A potted cypress in a birch container decorated with drieds in Lemon Cypress Christmas Tree
Fresh and drieds decorate a white pumpkin for Christmas
Fresh and drieds decorate a white pumpkin for Christmas

Boxwood is the ultimate green for decorating at Christmas and the classic piece to create with boxwood is a small tree which at a nursery can set you back $75. If you have boxwood shrubs growing in your garden, trim them up and use the pieces to make a great little centerpiece. Try your hand at making this simple but beautiful classic at Boxwood-The Ultimate Green for Christmas.

Boxwood trees are easy but take a lot of greens
Boxwood trees are easy but take a lot of greens and patience

Boxwood -The Ultimate Green for Christmas


Ripping out 50 failing English boxwoods on a landscape job this year turned into a decorating opportunity. Rather than taking the old shrubs out and chipping and shredding them, I decided to use the still green parts for some boxwood Christmas trees.

Boxwood tree before decorating
Boxwood tree before decorating

A traditional decoration, boxwood trees are simple to make but time consuming. Boxwood sprigs  inserted into saturated oasis lasts for at least 2 months in a green fresh looking form. After the holidays, you can even keep your tree which will dry nicely, and spray it gold for next year. Boxwood trees are easy to make and inexpensive if you have boxwood on hand. If you have to buy it though, it is expensive. I own several shrubs that need some attention and wait until early December to give them a thinning so I can use all those fresh greens and not throw them away.

'Green Velvet' Boxwood, a gold award winner from the Pennsylvania Hort Society is my 'go to' boxwood
‘Green Velvet’ Boxwood, a gold award winner from the Pennsylvania Hort Society is my ‘go to’ boxwood

When I thin my boxwood, I just grab a bunch of boxwood and snap it off at the woody stem. I call it ‘snapping boxwood’ and savvy gardeners do this to keep all their boxwood healthy. Beautiful boxwood requires periodic thinning to let air circulate throughout. Most people will sheer their shrubs which just stimulates the boxwood to grow in even thicker, blocking air flow.

Boxwood clipping with two-handed shears
Boxwood clipping with two-handed shears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snapping off hunks of the foliage, creates spaces within the boxwood which aids in air circulation and leads to a healthier shrub. When I talk ‘boxwood’, I am referring to both English, American, and Korean. Though the English is superior for making wreaths and trees, I use any kind that I can get.

Fastigiate boxwood or upright boxwood produces long straight stems for trees
Fastigiate boxwood or upright boxwood produces long straight stems for trees

Boxwood Tree Directions

  • Soak your cut boxwood in a tub of warm water overnight to hydrate the greens and keep them fresh longer
  • Choose a small plastic container and add a chunk of oasis for the base. Tape in with florist tape and add some picks.
  • Insert your cone on top of the picks
Select a small container and chop off a chunk of oasis to fit in the bottom: tape in with florist tape and add some picks to attach the larger piece
Select a small container and chop off a chunk of oasis to fit in the bottom: tape in with florist tape and add some picks to attach the larger piece
  • At this point I add a few wood picks from the side of the cone into the base to make sure everything is secure
Insert an oasis cone on top of the picks; you can also add a large block of oasis and shave it into a cone shape
Insert an oasis cone on top of the picks;  alternatively you can use a large block of oasis and shave it into a cone shape
  • I pick out a nice looking boxwood piece to form the peak. Once I stick that piece in, it gives me a guide to green up the rest of the tree.
Establish the contours of your tree and add the top pieces first
Establish the contours of your tree and add the top pieces first
  • Starting at the bottom, I break off pieces of boxwood and insert them into the oasis around the edge of the container first and move up. I added another variety of green (thujopsis) to the tree to give more textural interest. But if you are a purist, stick with boxwood
I added some other greens to the mix to make it more interesting; or you can keep it all boxwood
I added some other greens to the mix to make it more interesting; or you can keep it all boxwood
  • Add floral touches, like white pom poms, red roses, and small Christmas balls directly into the oasis; be sure to leave gaps to insert these elements
  • Insert your pieces of boxwood and flowers with care; If you insert them too densely, you could break apart the oasis
Insert your completed boxwood tree into a pretty container; here I used a footed mercury vapor container
Insert your completed boxwood tree into a pretty container; here I used a footed mercury vapor container
  • Spray the tree with an anti-dessicant, like Wilt-Pruf to keep the tree fresh for weeks
  • For care, I will mist it with water maybe once a week, and make sure that the oasis is thoroughly soaked through to keep it green and fresh
Add roses and white pom poms
Add roses and white pom poms

Decorating “The Palace in the Woods”, Hampton Mansion

Hampton Mansion all lit up for a festive Yuletide night
Hampton Mansion all lit up for a festive Yuletide night

Every year, I help with the decorating of “The Palace in the Woods”, Hampton National Historic site in Towson, Maryland, for their Yuletide celebration.  Dating back to the eighteenth century, Hampton is a large estate built in the Georgian architectural style, situated on many acres including a farm, greenhouses, slave quarters, an orangery, large Italianate gardens, horse stables, cemetery, and an English style park-like setting. Built as a country seat just after the Revolutionary War by the prominent Ridgely family, the house and its immediate surroundings are just a remnant of the Hampton estate of the early 1800s.

Many large mature trees surround Hampton Mansion
Many large mature trees surround Hampton Mansion
English: Hampton mansion, Maryland, USA from t...
English: Hampton mansion, Maryland, USA from the southwest. Hampton National Historic Site. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Decorating the Mansion along with the Park service is a lot of fun, and gives me ideas on decorating my house with fresh greens, garland, natural materials, and fresh flowers and fruit – all materials that were used back “in the day”, Williamsburg  or Colonial style.

The Christmas tree in the music room is decorated with handmade Victorian ornaments

Located in the music room, the Christmas tree exudes Victorian elegance with the hand-made ornaments reflecting the ornate Victorian era. The screens in the background are hand painted with colorful scenes and the furnishings reflect the lavish decorating in vogue at that time for the very wealthy. The mansion  showcases Mid-Atlantic life from before the American Revolution to after World War II.

Peacock hand painted screen
Peacock hand painted screen
Drawing room wall paper
Drawing room wall paper
Another beautiful painted screen at Hampton
Another beautiful painted screen at Hampton
The candlelit table is set for a big celebration
The candlelit table is set for a big celebration

Place settings are in the cranberry colors befitting the Yuletide season, and sideboards and tables are set with the house silver and groaning with food ( good quality fakes), but set up for a typical Christmas spread of the period.

Portrait of Eliza Ridgely, the American heiress and mistress of Hampton for many years
Portrait of Eliza Ridgely, Lady With a Harp, by painter Thomas Sully, the American heiress and mistress of Hampton for many years
Red Roses were used in most of the arrangements

The Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland take charge of the festive greenery decorations, as well as the fresh floral arrangements, all with the time period in mind when choosing materials. Slated to be restored in the near future, the dilapidated greenhouses were used by the Ridgelys used for out of season food and forcing flowers. Many of the clubs of District III, Baltimore and Harford County, participate and get together to carefully decorate the towering Christmas tree and make lots of labor intensive boxwood wreaths and arrangements.


Using fresh cut greens, a volunteer puts together a large arrangement in a towering urn
Using fresh-cut greens, a volunteer puts together a large arrangement in a towering urn


Landing arrangement with peach roses
Landing arrangement with peach roses from 2013
We use a wide variety of fresh evergreens
We use a wide variety of fresh evergreens
The Orangery being used by Garden Clubs to arrange the flowers
The Orangery being used by Garden Clubs to arrange the flowers


We meet in the old Orangery to work our magic on beautifying the mansion.  Armed with fresh-cut greens, we bring cut flowers, greens, and cutters. The Park Service also will cut some special greens from the surrounding landscape, like ivy berries, holly, and boxwood, which are beautiful and were certainly used when the Ridgely family lived there.

Mature Ivy
Mature Ivy has great black berries
Decorated table at Hampton
Decorated table at Hampton

At night the mansion is full of musicians, carolers, and docents who will answer questions about daily life of the Ridgelys, as well as the many slaves who lived on the grounds. The Hampton estate was the home of the Ridgelys through seven generations, and also of the enslaved people, indentured servants, and paid laborers who supported them, from before the American Revolution to after World War II.

One of the bedrooms with toys that were used in the time period
A bedroom interpreting the life of the children living at Hampton
Paper dolls were typical toys of the time period
Paper dolls were typical toys of the time period
Doll with tea set in one of the bedrooms
Doll with tea set in one of the bedrooms
The servant call bells are still in place
The servant call bells are still in place

One of the many garden club arrangements
One of the many garden club arrangements