Doors are decked in Williamsburg’s signature style to celebrate the holiday season. Laura Viancour describes the preparations.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. Throughout Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, Coordinator of Garden Programs Laura Viancour and her staff arrange holiday greens in combinations nature never imagined. Dried flowers, seashells, fruits and pods are combined in wreaths and swags that have become a cherished sign of the season's start. Laura is with me now to talk about this year's preparations
Lloyd: These are not modern Christmas decorations with lights and balls and all those things.
Laura: No, the Williamsburg style is using natural ingredients. We use greenery, fresh fruit and dried materials, as well as some products that indicate the use of the building. For example, at the wig shop we might have curlers and combs, or at the music shop have some tin whistles or drumsticks. This is something that was created in the 1930s during the very early stages of the Restoration.
When Williamsburg was still a town and not a whole museum and Reverend Goodwin, one of the creators of Colonial Williamsburg, knew it was not going to be popular to tell the people they couldn’t decorate because it wasn’t authentic. So there was a compromise made using old-fashioned materials and that’s how the decorating competition began, trying to get the townspeople to decorate in a more natural style.
Now what many guests don’t know though, is that the other buildings are lived in by Colonial Williamsburg employees. They are responsible for their decorations. They can do the decorations themselves or they can hire a professional, but they need to let us know which it is so that we judge them separately. We judge the professionals separately from the amateurs.
Lloyd: So there’s a contest that goes with it all.
Laura: Right, and that goes back to the early Restoration when they were trying to get the townspeople to buy in to decorating more naturally – not with glitter and Santa Claus and such. And that continues today.
Lloyd: Who does the judging for the contest?
Laura: Well those are three people chosen by the landscape department that have either landscape design, florist or floristry background. Then someone from landscape goes along to make sure that the materials are appropriate to the 18th century.
We check for things like creativity, attention to detail. Don’t want to see any glue globs, you know, hot glue strings. Don’t want to see those. It’s a hard job, but it’s fun to see how much effort the employees put into doing it.
Lloyd: How many buildings do you decorate in the Historic Area?
Laura: We’re responsible for decorating over 88 exhibition buildings. That does not include the dependencies that are part of that site. Some buildings have kitchens, dairies, lumber houses. But at least 88 exhibition buildings – the taverns, and then any residences that aren’t occupied at the time.
Lloyd: Ok, 88 buildings. How many people does it take to make that many decorations?
Laura: At the first of November, we take 12 gardeners form their regular assignments, and they start designing the dried arrangements that will be hung the week of Thanksgiving. We also rely on two other gardeners to start making the boxwood wreaths, and to check the arrangements daily once they’re installed. It probably takes about another dozen carpenters to hang the decorations. Some of them can be over 50 pounds. Because we are hanging them on, some of the buildings are original to the 18th century, so we have to be very careful of what we do.
It’s really a year-round process because as soon as we’re done, we try to recycle a lot of the material, such as the products and oyster shells. So we have to put all those away. Throughout the year, we need to dry material that we want to use for our decorations. We can’t wait until November and think, “Oh, I wish I would have had some dried globe amaranth.”
That’s something we have to do throughout the year. So it takes a lot of support. The gardeners that aren’t working on the actual designs are busy getting all the leaves up for Grand Illumination, because we need the leaves up before we can have fireworks. So it’s a real team effort.
Lloyd: What are some of the fresh and dried materials that you use?
Laura: Well almost any fruit that you can get today would have been known in colonial times. We like to use a lot of the pomegranates, because they preserve well, as do apples. Citrus, they don’t hold up as well as the apples and the pomegranates.
We tell our guests that anything you see growing in the Historic Area is something that we can use on the decorations. So everything from walnuts to catalpa seedpods, any of the flowers that you see, we’ll dry them and use them. We use a lot of yarrow and tansy, which is a nice bright yellow. We like to use a lot of cotton, too, because of the white. That helps to bring other colors out.
So depending too on the use of the building, we try to incorporate the use, the 18th-century use. So, we might, if it’s a kitchen, incorporate some vegetables, or if it’s the apothecary, incorporate some herbs.
Lloyd: Now, you say you put up decorations for 88 buildings, but you don’t just put them up once and leave them there, they have to be resupplied.
Laura: I think our guests don’t realize the maintenance. They’re always wondering how our decorations stay looking so nice, and it’s because the decoration that goes up at Thanksgiving is usually not the same fresh arrangement that is taken down after New Year’s.
Every other week, we re-hang most of the fresh wreaths in the Historic Area. We do have to change out the greenery at least once, depending on Mother Nature, maybe more than that. Then every morning while most of us are in bed, we have two gardeners out on the street, repairing all the different arrangements, spritzing them with water to keep them fresh, replacing any broken or damaged material, including plant material that has bites or fingernail marks.
Lloyd: Why would they have fingernail marks in the fruit?
Laura: You just have to see if it’s real or not.
Lloyd: Do the squirrels give you trouble?
Laura: Squirrels and birds. The squirrels, I think they invite all of their relatives here for the holidays, because they pretty much are just sitting there. When we’re changing out, they know that we’re going to get rid of the old ones. So they’ll just sit there and wait for us to take the old arrangements off, throw it down, and put the new one up. They’re not shy at all. So that’s definitely something our designers take into consideration when designing their creations.
Sometimes they might put more fresh fruit in an area that’s harder for a squirrel to get to. They’re pretty clever though, and then we still have the birds, which is pretty much hard to avoid. You also too think about the exposure. Those on the sunny side of the street, before long, start using more dried material. Whereas those that live on the shady side of the street will use more fresh ingredients. Because they last uphold much better in the cooler shade.
Lloyd: Let’s try on the cool side. How long would you expect a fruit and dried arrangement to hold up?
Laura: Well with the fresh fruit, it all depends on the weather. The ideal temperature is your refrigerator. If we could just enclose the Historic Area and keep it at 40 degrees, that would be great. It’s the freezing and thawing that hurts the fruit, or if it gets really warm. There have been some Decembers where we get up into the 80s. So it depends on Mother Nature.
The dry materials do well, but we will still have to change out the roping and the green wreaths at least once, if not twice if it gets too warm. I think that’s what’s fun about our decorations is that there’s a lot of creativity every year. People that come back every year still see something new. And it’s amazing to me how our designers can keep coming up with new ideas, but they do.