Sunday Dinner: Expecting Christmas

Holiday decorations at Colonial Williamsburg

Holiday decorations at Colonial Williamsburg

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“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world,

and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ”

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Norman Vincent Peale

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“Blessed is the season

which engages the whole world

in a conspiracy of love.”
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Hamilton Wright Mabie

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“He who has not Christmas in his heart

will never find it under a tree.”
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Roy L. Smith

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

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Apples, Pine Cones and Artichokes: Ornamenting the Wreath

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What is beautiful?  What is not?

Our answer is often a Rorschach test of our own personality.

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Wreathes, a most ancient symbol of eternity and eternal life, come to us from deep antiquity.

We find traces of them in the earliest evidence of civilization we can find.  Whether made from precious metals and ornamented with gemstones, carved in stone, or woven from olive branches; wreathes remain symbols of celebration and commemoration.

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Wreathes woven from evergreen branches mark the winter solstice holidays.  They symbolically promise that despite the ever shortening days and cold weather, life goes on and the sun will soon return.  And we decorate these evergreen wreathes with the seeds of new life.

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Fruits, cones, berries, cotton puffs, nuts and seed pods, our favorite ornaments for our wreathes, all bear seeds inside them.  They contain the promise of next season’s fertility.

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The early Virginia colonists likely brought branches of evergreen trees into their homes to mark the  Christmas holiday.  But the certainly didn’t construct the beautiful fruit laden wreathes we admire around ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ today.

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To quote Theobald and Oliver, writing on the official Colonial Williamsburg website in an article called, ‘Deck the Doors,’  :

“Never mind that no one in the eighteenth century would have been caught dead with real fruit tacked to his front door.  Anyone hanging fresh fruit outdoors in the middle of winter to rot or be devoured by squirrels would have been thought, at best, highly eccentric by his neighbors. “

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The unique handmade wreathes, swags. sprays and baskets, constructed of only natural materials and lacking ribbons and bows, were first created in the late 1930’s; after the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation opened up for business and wanted to attract a crowd in all seasons.

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They were greatly admired and photographed.  Soon a contest for the most beautiful wreathes in this style evolved, and the ‘Della robbia’ or ‘fruit covered’ wreath style of Colonial Williamsburg was launched.

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In some ways it makes sense that these beautiful wreathes, constructed of ‘found’ materials, caught on at the end of the Great Depression years in America.  Wreathes in this style may be constructed very inexpensively with whatever may be at hand.

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They are also a reaction, at least in part, against the commercialization of Christmas.  They feed our romantic notion of what life could have been like ‘back in the day’ before silver tinsel trees and Christmas ornaments imported from Asian factories became the norm.

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But the truth is, even though wealthy residents of 18th century Williamsburg might have eaten pineapples and citrus fruits imported from the Caribbean colonies, they didn’t fashion outdoor decorations from them.

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And the Colonial Williamsburg wreathes today ask us to broaden our thinking about what is appropriate as a Christmas decoration.  Dried okra pods?  Skeins of yarn?  Artichokes?  Why not?

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Beauty often transcends the materials and shines through the design, the geometry, the harmony, and the  colors used.

The making of these wreathes is a 20th Century phenomenon; not an 18th Century fashion.  But they blend so beautifully into this reconstruction and reinterpretation of a Colonial Virginia town.

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If you find them beautiful, please try your hand at making a della Robbia wreath of your own.  Begin with a wire, straw or grapevine base.  Gather some evergreen branches or Magnolia leaves.  Bay leaves and citrus leaves work well, too, if you have them.

Then gather things you find beautiful and meaningful:  fruit, cones, shells, pods, dried flowers, vegetables, nuts and berries.  Use wire, hot glue and floral picks to build your design.

You might even make an ‘edible’ wreath of fruits to serve at a party.

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The trick is to express yourself and create a wreath which has meaning for you.  Create something beautiful to ornament your own home at the holidays.

The materials don’t matter, so long as they bring you joy.

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Can you see the face? All of the ornaments on this house follow a 'Star Wars' theme.....

Can you see the face? All of the ornaments on this house follow a ‘Star Wars’ theme…..

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All photos were taken in Colonial Williamsburg this December

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'Light Sabers...."

‘Light Sabers….”

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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“A Forest Garden 2016” gardening calendar,  featuring some of our favorite photos from 2015, is  available now.  Write to me at woodlandgnome@zoho.com for details.

A Colonial Winter Garden

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Those fierce souls who founded our nation knew the importance of taking care of business.  And their business always included raising food for their own family’s table.

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Our country was founded by serious gardeners.  Even  luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington maintained gardens, tended orchards, had fields of crops to use and sell, and raised those animals needed to keep meat on the table.  Although they, and others of their class kept slaves in those days; they still took a very active hands-on interest in their garden.

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Colonial Williamsburg maintains many gardens, but this remains my favorite.  It is a very well maintained colonial vegetable garden tended in the 18th Century style.

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It looks even more lush this December than usual.  But that is likely due to our fair weather these last few months.  It is a pleasing mix of herbs, flowers and vegetables.

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Fruit trees may be found around the edges.  There are vegetables growing from tiny seedling up to ready to harvest cabbages and collards.

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These vegetables are used in the CW kitchens.  They are lovingly tended up to the moment they are authentically prepared and gratefully consumed.

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We strolled down Duke of Gloucester Street on Sunday to enjoy the ingenious Christmas wreathes.  But as you might guess, I was distracted for quite a while by the garden.

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It was  a grey day, completely overcast and damp.  A few drops spritzled as we were leaving.  But it was warm and comfortable; a great day to enjoy the wreathes and seasonal decorations on every building.

I’ll share a few with you each day for the next few days.

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I’ve not yet made any wreathes myself,  this year. 

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But there is still time before Christmas Eve, and a dear friend gifted me with a bucket of Magnolia branches later Sunday afternoon.  We used some of the Magnolia while decorating for a community luncheon we’re hosting tomorrow.

And yes, there is a vase.  I just haven’t photographed it, yet!

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Evergreen Magnolia is one of my favorite native plants.  They grow wild here in Virginia, and my friend has a wild seedling grown large in her garden.

You’ll see lots of Magnolia used at Colonial Williamsburg in their holiday decorations.  It has wonderful color and holds up for the several weeks of our festivities.  One can’t eat it, but it decorates many holiday dinner tables and sideboards.  We spread it liberally around our buffet table and the beverage tables for tomorrow’s gathering.

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Which in a round about way brings us back to my neglect of wreathes this season.  Our  front doors are graced with old ones from ‘the wreath collection’ which hangs in our garage at the moment.  They are fine from a distance, with red silk roses and moss on a grapevine base.

And I just may recycle the Magnolia leaves off the buffet table into a stunning garland to hang round the front doors this year.  Southern Living Magazine has any number of fine projects featuring Magnolia leaves this December.

If you are a Virginia neighbor, you might have been admiring the December issue right along with me.

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It still all comes down to ‘taking care of business’ for our family and our community.

As modern as our lives might feel at times, our foundation remains in hearth and home;  friendship and family; good food and hands-on self sufficiency.    It is part of our heritage not just as Virginians or Americans;  it is part of our human heritage and a fundamental value around the world.

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May you take time for those things which bring you real joy this holiday season.  And may you take care of business such that you assure yourself and your loved ones of a very Happy New Year, too.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

Photos from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

“A Forest Garden 2016” gardening calendar is now available, featuring some of our favorite photos from 2015.  Write to me at woodlandgnome@zoho.com for details.

A Circle Unbroken

December 17, 2014 wreath 001

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It is evening of the seventeenth of December.  Those of us who celebrate Christmas have entered “crunch time.”

The preparations feel endless sometimes.  Our shopping lists and “to do” lists telescope.  After the second visit this week with our friends at the main Williamsburg post office,  I am breathing a bit easier that “Christmas” is in the mail to loved ones who live far away.

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The final wreath I plan to make this year is complete, and in place on the dining room table.  It is an old grapevine wreath I made years ago from "found" vines.  I added reingeer moss and oyster shells.

The final wreath I plan to make this year is complete, and in place on the dining room table. It is an old grapevine wreath I made years ago from “found” vines. This year I’ve added reindeer moss and oyster shells.

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It is, perhaps, the repetition, year to year, of those small family rituals of the Christmas season which make this such a special time.  Every December we are drawn back to the music, the aromas, the tastes, and the much loved Christmas decorations we have enjoyed so much in years passed.

Saturday’s task was making fruitcake for my parents.  They love our recipe, passed on from Grandmother,  based on an applesauce spice cake she loved to make when my mother was a child.   We add many different fruits and nuts, jam, cherries, and pineapple to this basic cake recipe.

I found my notes from the epic batches I used to make in the 1980’s.  That recipe called for two dozen eggs.  The other ingredients were measured in pounds.  It took an entire day of effort, and yielded at least a dozen cakes.

I only doubled the basic recipe this year, a modest effort.  Yet from cooking down the apples for applesauce to wrapping the finished cakes felt like a day’s work.

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Moss fern will thrive here in bright, indirect light.  It is in a "semi-terrarium;" partly, but not fully grown in glass.

Moss fern will thrive here in bright, indirect light, in the center of the wreath.  It is in a “semi-terrarium;” partly, but not fully grown in glass.

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Fruitcake is one of the flavors of Christmas in our family.  Tomorrow I’ll make another batch of blond fruit cakes, which Mother calls “Dundee Cake.”  It will be rich in cherries, walnuts, pecans, and dates; perfumed with a little fresh orange zest.

We’ll  have this cake ready to serve friends who stop in and to enjoy ourselves with a cup of chai.

Wreathes speak of this repetition; the unbroken circle of the year turning back to Christmas once again.

Every December I go out early in the month to cut fragrant Cedar and collect pine cones.  I cut herbs, and sometimes roses, for the year’s Christmas wreathes.  Cedar is one of the aromas of Christmas which speaks to me most poignantly.

We always went out to cut a cedar tree from a friend’s field when I was a child, and then brought it home on the roof of the car, and set it up in the living room where it filled the house with its fresh spicy green aroma.  We knew it was finally “Christmas” once our tree was lit and decorated in the living room.

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We always had an Advent Wreath on the kitchen table when I was growing up, and lit the candles each night at dinner. We lit an additional candle each week as we counted the days until Christmas. This is a gesture towards remembering that beautiful Advent wreath my mother always made for us.

We always had an Advent Wreath on the kitchen table when I was growing up, and lit the candles each night at dinner. We lit an additional candle each week as we counted the days until Christmas. This is a gesture towards remembering that beautiful Advent wreath my mother always made for us.

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Every family has its own cherished customs.  Our expressions of Christmas are as unique as our thumbprint. 

And in the spirit of sharing our unique expressions, I offered a Holiday Wreath Challenge this year for anyone willing to share photos or a post about the wreathes and decorations you have created this year.

One of the first responses came from Jenny, who hosts the One Word Photo Challenge on her photography blog.  Jenny created a beautiful wreath from the clay she uses to construct her amazing miniature scenes.

Jenny's beautiful wreath, handmade from clay.

Jenny’s beautiful wreath, handmade from clay.

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Please visit Jenny’s post to see how she constructed her wreath, step by step.

Then a dear friend and neighbor shared photos of the wreath she made around Thanksgiving time for her front door.

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Wreath by Farrokh

Wreath by Farrokh

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The berries came on a vine she found in the New Town area while shopping one day in mid-November.  She was amazed to find them lying on the sidewalk under a tree.

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I’ve since found the same vine in the same area, but don’t know its name.  It makes for such a beautiful wreath of multicolored berries  mixed with cones.  An unexpected gift from nature; so beautifully used!

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It was several weeks more before Eliza Waters shared photos of her Christmas wreathes.

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Eliza

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Eliza lives in Massachusetts, and has already enjoyed snow.  In fact, snow over Thanksgiving weekend brought down some large branches of Balsam Fir which she salvaged to use in a whole series of gorgeous Christmas decorations, along with pine and pine cones.  Please visit her post to see them all. 

Next, Barbara Scott, who lives in Amelia County, Virginia shared photos of her elegant Christmas decorations.  Barbara and her husband have breathed new life into a grand Virginia country home.  She has used Blue Spruce, sent by a friend along with Magnolia and other evergreen materials in her garden to craft several stunning arrangements indoors and out.

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Barbara

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These are pure eye candy, so please take time to enjoy Barbara’s posts.

Speaking of “eye candy,” you may also enjoy seeing photos Chris VanCleave, The Redneck Rosarian, posted of some stunning Christmas arrangements featuring red roses and red poinsettias.  Gwennie, at Gwennie’s Garden has also pulled together some elegant and lovely Christmas decorations.  She and I share a love for luminous blue glass, which she has used  so beautifully here.

It always fascinates me to see how friends and loved ones celebrate Christmas, and what is important to their joy each year.

I love exploring trees full of antique ornaments, and seeing the keepsakes friends bring out to enjoy each December.

I like tasting cherished family recipes and trying new concoctions with chocolate, nuts, and fruit.

And I’m always fascinated with the wreathes, door decorations, and light displays which brighten up the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

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It brings us full circle. 

We close the year by re-visiting those things which bring us joy and comfort. 

We reach out to those people we hold dear. 

And we celebrate all things bright and beautiful in this season of light.

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Woodland Gnome 2014

 With love and appreciation to everyone who contributed to this post.

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My front door this December, decorated with bits from our garden and wooden birds.

Our  front door this December, decorated with bits from our garden and wooden birds.

The Season of Wreathes

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It is December in Williamsburg, and wreathes are appearing on front doors everywhere.

I love early December when it is still warm enough to walk around the colonial area and enjoy these unusual and beautiful decorations.

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Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

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Known as “della Robbia,” these unique decorations are made from natural, easily accessible materials which would have been available to the residents of Williamsburg during the 18th Century.

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These wreathes, garlands and sprays reflect the evergreens and berries available in our Virginia woods, shells collected from the James River and Chesapeake Bay, feathers from local birds, dried flowers and pods grown in Colonial gardens, and the many fruits and vegetables either imported from the Caribbean colonies, or grown locally.

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Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

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No, we don’t grow pineapples, lemons and oranges in Virginia.  But these exotic fruits were readily available to the colonists through trade with the rest of the British Empire.

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Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

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The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation produces all of the wreathes and decorations used on their buildings each December.

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It is a huge undertaking for their staff each year, and draws visitors from across the United States and around the world.

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Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg, 2014

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I was in good company with lots of other photographers as I took photos on the eastern end of things, near the Colonial Capitol, yesterday.

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We’ll make another trek to capture the decorations on the western end of Duke of Gloucester Street, near The College of William and Mary, one day soon.

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Some of my companion photographers planned to use their photos to produce their own Christmas cards.  Others just wanted souvenirs.

I’ll share photos with you over several posts during December.

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I’ve made the first of my own wreathes for this year, in the della Robbia style, and they are hanging now at our neighborhood community center.

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I made this wreath on Saturday.

I made this wreath on Saturday.

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These are made on purchased straw wreath forms.  I begin with a base of Magnolia leaves, then add mixed bunches of evergreen which includes Cedar, Rosemary and Lavender  from our garden, and trimmings from the Christmas tree we purchased on Saturday.  Step by step instructions, with photos, may be found here….

These wreathes are trimmed with pine cones collected near College Creek on Saturday afternoon, Red Delicious apples, and some feathers from the craft store.

I hope you’ll construct some beautiful wreathes of your own this year, using whatever materials you can collect locally.

Colonial Williamsburg 2014

Colonial Williamsburg 2014

Please send me photos of your creations (by December 13)  to include in a round-up post later this month.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with! 

If you blog, please send a ping back and I’ll include a link to your post from mine.

This is a tiny little rebellion against Christmas “Made in China.”  Let’s make our own Christmas cheer, from the materials close at hand, just as our grandparents did.

It is a lot more interesting, and a lot more fun!

 

Colonial Williamsburg 2014

Colonial Williamsburg 2014

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Holiday Wreath Challenge 2014

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