Let nature help do the decorating Wreaths: Window and door ornaments can be made from materials you gather from the woods, roadside, your own yard or the grocery store. As in gift-giving, your personal touch means a lot.


Everyone likes to have a bit of greenery on the front door and windows or the garden gate during the holiday season. These gracious ornaments are the first gestures of welcome to our midwinter festivities.

Nowadays, outdoor holiday decorating may involve death-defying acrobatics with ladders to string thousands of twinkling lights that reach to the rooftops, but at Colonial Williamsburg, the restored historic capital of Virginia, the tradition remains in keeping with 18th-century life. The decorations -- wreaths, plaques and thick evergreen ropes of natural materials -- pick out the architectural details of the fine old buildings.

A simple wreath on the door really is sufficient to convey your holiday sentiments.

"You tend to do them before you do everything else, so they are the setting for everything that follows," says Libbey Oliver, Williamsburg's manager of floral services.

Touches of greenery at the doors and windows and spots of color in the winter garden help gardeners in bone-chilling regions feel close to nature even when they are up to their knees in snow. If you're lucky or smart enough to live where the sun smiles on the winter solstice, a wreath of citrus leaves or exotic tropical foliage and fruit stylishly and effectively expresses the local spirit of the season. If nature's provisions are sparse or time is short, shop around. Florists are well-stocked at this season, and, as Oliver points out, "People can get so much at the grocery store."

Deep forest greens are predominant in Williamsburg's traditional holiday decorations. Pine cones, seed pods and bright berries, lemons, apples and fruit of all kinds bring their colors, textures and shapes to the designs.

Oliver uses magnolia leaves, cuttings of boxwood and boughs of white pine or red cedar for wreaths and plaques. She travels a lot to show people around the country how these things are done at Williamsburg, and she likes to improvise with local materials.

"If they don't have magnolias," she says, "we find something -- croton [spurge] leaves, say. In New England, they have a lot more needle-leaf things."

West Coast gardeners can use eucalyptus leaves; ivy is available just about everywhere.

Oliver sometimes comes home from out-of-town lectures with a few treasures in her suitcase.

"It's been fun going to Texas," she says. "They have beautiful pomegranates there."

The Colonists had access to pomegranates, Oliver says, although the plants don't always bear generously in Virginia. The thick-skinned fruits are large and bright, and they "hold up real well and look important," she says.

Assembling material for wreaths and swags is part of the holiday experience.

"The basic traditional value is to go out and gather," says Ryan Gainey, a garden designer and decorator. Even if you buy a wreath from a professional designer or florist -- and balsam and fir wreaths are available almost everywhere -- "embellish them with local things," Gainey says. "Even that is enough to make it more personal."

Gainey decorates his wreaths with fruit, berries or nuts. He occasionally uses manufactured materials, but when he does, it's mainly just ribbon.

He is firm with his clients: "If it's going to be Christmas, the decoration is ribbon and it's going to be red. You're not going to get artificial flowers or artificial materials, and you're not going to have peaches and pinks for your front door. You're going to have red and green."

At Williamsburg, the wreaths are 22 inches in diameter. Decorative plaques of fragrant evergreen foliage, dried flowers, berries, seed pods and nuts are mounted on plywood or put together on a "floral cage," a sturdy plastic form containing lightweight, moisture-retaining foam (they are available at hobby shops).

"We try to get an idea together and collect more material than we need, then get two ideas started," Oliver says. "They come together on their own. You can't always say, 'I'm going to do a wreath and it will have 10 apples, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.' You sometimes have to let the materials direct you a little bit."

And that's the right spirit. These annual celebrations in the depth of winter, traditional and predictable as they are, should be full of surprises.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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