Behind Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area decorations

When the first small groups of unexpected Christmas pilgrims came to the newly opened Colonial Williamsburg in 1934, there was nothing like the spectacle of fruit-covered swags, wreaths and garlands that made the Historic Area holiday nationally famous.

A few strings of electric lights adorned 10 evergreen trees — but the doors and windows of the first few buildings were barren.

Prodded by the displeasure of CW President Kenneth Chorley, the foundation sidestepped the record of austere Yuletides found in Colonial Virginia.

Simple wreaths and pine roping decked out the Raleigh Tavern and Governor’s Palace beginning in 1936, when the first candles appeared in the windows.

And within a few years flower arranger Louise Fisher was borrowing so skillfully from 1400s Italian and 1700s English precedents that her gorgeous fruit-laden compositions gave birth to what is now an ingrained tradition.

That eye-catching Colonial Revival legacy lives on today through a corps of designers, gardeners, carpenters and volunteers who not only create and hang the decorations for more than 100 buildings, but also maintain them against the effects of nighttime freezing, the heat of the sun and hungry squirrels and birds.

Then there are the errant fingers of visitors driven by curiosity and wonder.

“When they started in the 1930s, they knew they had to compromise between authenticity and modern expectations about the Christmas season,” landscape director Laura Viancour says.

“Today, we couldn’t do what they did because of the focus on authenticity. But if we stopped decorating now, a lot of people would be very unhappy. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Creation

Step in the CW Design Studio just outside of town and you’ll find the busy hub of what has grown into a weekslong operation, with the collection of dry materials starting in mid-October.

Rack after rack lines the back wall of the long narrow shop, each shelf filled with bins and a bewildering array of raw construction elements ranging from pine cones, cotton bolls, wheat shafts and even birds nests to dried flowers, citrus and artichokes as well as oyster, clam and scallop shells.

Carts crowded with buckets are parked just in front — with fresh green branches of Frazier fir, magnolia, juniper and various red-berried hollies arching up into the air as if vying for the attention of the designers and volunteers.

In another long and narrow adjoining room, scores of additional racks provide storage for finished decorations — each large slot marked with the name of the historic house for which they have been created.

Beyond that a giant walk-in cooler hums, furnishing some 250 square feet of refrigerated space for such fresh, perishable materials like apples, citrus, pomegranates and pineapples, much of it obtained from produce suppliers but some — like the osage oranges and mistletoe — collected from the Historic Area.

Linking all these storage areas together is a long bank of nine sturdy butcher-block work tables set up against the windows along the front of the studio.

That’s where designers such as Scott Hemler work with a steady stream of volunteers, drawing upon this large stock of materials to fabricate the decorations.

“There are times when all those tables are full,” landscape manager Joanne Chapman says, “sometimes with two people working at each table.”

Construction

Drawing upon the design practices pioneered by Fisher nearly 85 years ago, the team still strives for Colonial Revival balance and proportion as they assemble the parts of each wreath or garland.

But good, sturdy construction is just as essential, Hemler says, demonstrating how he uses wooden picks, floral tape and wire to attach each element securely to the welded wire foundation hidden behind the greenery.

“People always touch them to see how they’re made,” Chapman said.

“They’re handled so much they have to be reinforced.”

Freezing nighttime temperatures bring additional problems once the decorations have been mounted over the doors and windows by the carpenters.

Sunny days can spoil and dry out the fruits and greenery, too, especially now that the Historic Area holidays — which once started a couple of weeks before Christmas — begin after Thanksgiving.

That extended season is one reason why senior gardener Preston Armstead makes his rounds up and down Duke of Gloucester Street and the adjacent lanes early each morning.

Carrying a ladder, a basket of spares and a kit of wooden picks and wire in the back of his truck, he inspects the decorations with an eye honed by some 20 years of shepherding perishable elements through Jan. 1.

He’s also learned a few tricks over the years — such as turning the fruit before replacing it — in order to extend the life of each wreath or garland.

“I’m out every morning before 7 to check the whole Historic Area, concentrating on the fruits,” he says.

“You don’t have to worry about the Granny Smith apples — they’re hard and the best as far holding up through the season. But if you get a hard freeze the lemons and oranges will start to black out. They go pretty quickly if it gets cold.”

Freshening up

This year’s decorations include many traditional favorites, such as the battery of 20 evergreen wreaths strung from virtually every window as well as the high cupola and roof rail at the 2 1/2-story Governor’s Palace, which already has been redone three times this season.

But visitors also will find many new and often unusually creative decorations devised by volunteers from the Historic Trades staff for their exhibit buildings.

Criss-crossed hand-wrought nails and a wooden builder’s square set off the decorations made by the Historic Area joiners, for example, while pieces and parts of shoes — including nails, heel pegs, a rasp, a buckle and a ball of thread — enliven a wreath at the shoemaker.

Multi-colored woven cords spiral down the porch posts at the entrance to the weavers’ shop, while the entrance to a Historic Foodways kitchen is topped by a wreath embellished with cooking and eating utensils.

All of them sprang from the imaginations of the CW trades people, Chapman says, explaining how the new decorations have added to the appeal of the design studio’s ornaments and those created by Historic Area residents for their homes.

Echoing the traditional visual vocabulary of tradesman’s signs, most find clever ways to incorporate iconic symbols of their professions along with a flourish of Yuletide greenery.

And that resourcefulness only compounds the ways in which the wreaths that decorate such shops as the Printing Office — which won first prize — blend the spirit of the holidays with the artful.

“When we asked the tradesmen if they wanted to participate, we weren’t sure how it would turn out,” Chapman says.

“But they’re all creative — and they’re artists. So it went really well.”

Erickson can be reached by phone as 757-247-4783.

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