Posts tagged decorations

Ghost of Christmas Past

Deb Engmark, head gardener at the historic Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids, wrote the following about decorations of Christmases past:


The Christmas tree, the holly wreath, the sprig of mistletoe, and the Christmas bells were the four most “distinctive Christmas decorations” noted in a December 1907 issue of The Garden Magazine.  Stumbling upon this publication the day after the staff and volunteers completed holiday decorating at Brucemore allowed for some interesting comparisons between the times.

Balsam was recommended as the best variety of tree when decorating for Christmas and the best way to adorn it was not to overload it.  Pyramidal trees with short lustrous green needles striped with silver underneath were also popular in 1907 because they “give the impression of a recent light frost.” The month-long holiday season at Brucemore makes these natural, heavy-shedding, historic trees impractical for the mansion, and the temptation to over-adorn is irresistible in such a grand home.  I am not sure any of the staff has the ability to practice the “less is more theory” during the holiday season.

Holly was referred to as the most important decorative Christmas material, the most desirable was English holly with as many berries as possible. The most distinctive way of using holly was in the form of wreaths; the best wreaths were those faced with berries on both sides, “so that when they were hung in the window they would give pleasure to those passing by as well as the family indoors.”

As for the beloved holiday mistletoe tradition, in 1907 it was thought that “because it is not pretty in itself, one sprig of mistletoe is enough for most people.” This is a statement as true today as it was over 100 years ago.

The final “distinctive Christmas decoration” of 1907, the Christmas bells, are absent from the décor of 2008.  The traditional sleigh bells that we appreciate for their own magical sound were not the bells that the magazine referenced. In 1907, “Those big red bells of tissue paper that fold up like a stocking have now become almost a national institution.”  Who knew?

            Families in 1907 were concerned with their holiday budgets much like families in 2008.  According to the article, “The cheapest way to decorate is to collect native material, especially branches of evergreens.”  However, they urge the reader, “not to take any evergreens that do not belong to you without the owner’s approval. It is a gross violation of the Christmas spirit to cut down cultivated conifers on other people’s grounds.” 

            I encourage you to look to nature when decorating this holiday season.  Go forth and use your imagination and homegrown ornaments.  If you are questioned about your holiday aesthetic, cite deep American cultural traditions.  This method allows for creativity until the seed and plant catalogs start to arrive.  I too urge you to remember the Christmas spirit when collecting your greenery.

From the Big house at Brucemore may all comfort and cheer be yours this holiday season! 


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Autumn alternatives

The following is from Linn County Master Gardener Brenda Garbe:


WOW! Has it been cold the last couple of mornings when I stepped out the door!  And have you noticed how daylight comes much later?  Summer is fading way too fast!    But, the kids are back in school and the leaves are commencing to turn so it must be time to consider that the frost will soon be on the pumpkin.  The “summer” wreath will be replaced by the “fall” one this weekend. Here are some suggestions for fall decorations from the garden:

            Pumpkins are the first thing that we tend to think of when decorating the house and landscape for the fall season.  I’d like to add a couple of different suggestions that you may not have considered. 

            In addition to the usual stalks of corn and colored corn decorating the front entry, consider the colorful Celosia (cockscomb) for a material for wreaths or swags.  Or tuck some in with your corn stalks when binding.

            Helichrysum (strawflower), Limonium (statice) and Achillea (yarrow) are other common garden flowers that dry easily and last for a long time.  A light spray of clear acrylic will help hold any stray petals or leaves in place.  Rudbeckia may turn prematurely black when summers are cool, and makes a perfect addition to any Halloween display and will stand for a long time.

            My current favorites are the small ornamental odd-shaped gourds and the larger apple, bushel and birdhouse gourds.  The small ornamental gourds are often colorful and distinctly shaped with a wide range of colors and surface textures.  Add them to a fall display, wire them onto a wreath frame or even mount them on spikes like a garden fantasy display.

            Have you considered the branches of Euonymus alatus (burning bush) or Cornus Species (red –twigged dogwood) to bring out a fall decorating scheme?   These shrubs are grown primarily for their red colored stems that  stand out against the dreary winter landscape.  Incorporate your designs in front of your standing shrub or decorate it with some dried flowers or a grouping of big gourds  and pumpkins.

            Let your creative juices flow.  Use some native grasses, buy a straw bale from a farmer.  Have some fun!


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