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  • Jennifer Jewell


Della Robia Christmas wreath at Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg. All Rights reserved.



This week on Cultivating Place, a lesson in garden history seen through the lens of holiday decorations and traditions from seasons' past when we’re joined by Laura Viancor, Head of Horticulture at Colonial Williamsburg. Laura also has the daunting though festive task of overseeing the extensive holiday decorations for historic Colonial Williamsburg - a remarkably garden and plant-based holiday tradition that has evolved over centuries. Laura joins us to share more from the studios of WHRO in Williamsburg, VA.

Colonial Williamsburg and its buildings and gardens date back to the 1600s, but it was not until the restoration of the historic site in the early 1900s that the Christmas decorating of the historic area began to draw national and international attention. Since the late 1930s, the historic buildings and grounds have decked the halls for an "old fashioned" if not exactly Colonial, Christmas celebration. What started then as decorating 4 historic buildings for the 12 days of Christmas, is now decorating close to 100 buildings for almost 6 weeks. Historical garden and horticultural research guides what plant materials can be included in the decorations.

Laura Viancor has spent more than 30 years researching, working and enjoying the historic gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, where every year the historic residences and businesses of the historic district are decked out in period decorations for the winter holidays. While the current decorations reflect the evolutions of taste and styles over the years, the plant material used remains true to what would have been available to Colonial townsfolk – evergreens, berries, orchard fruits, imported citrus and nuts abound – for people and the town’s wildlife.

“I go back to the seasonality and the timeliness and there is a time for everything and at our church Burton Parish Church the garden is filled with evergreens because of their symbolism of life. And I think the simple greening of the houses in Colonial times and us today brings some life to a time of year that is more quiet and more grey and the simple greening makes it more festive.""

Laura Viancor, Colonial Williamsburg


In our conversation, Laura shares with us the variety of the residential and tradesman buildings and grounds in the historic district - how practicalities were important, but that gardens were as much about status as produce. If a wealthy landowner had a lovely house, she wanted it framed – like a piece of art – with beautiful gardens and grounds. Much like today. "In the 18th century, gardens reflected status," Laura explains. "King William and Queen Mary (for whom the College of William & Mary, which is intertwined with Colonial Williamsburg) had both loved horticulture. And here at the time, Governor Spotswood thought the gardens should be grand."

Over the centuries, the winter holiday decorations have become just as and increasingly grand. The same sense of geometry, formality, mirroring, balance, symmetry are seen in the local, seasonal plant material-based holiday creations as in the gardens themselves throughout the year – all while avoiding non-period materials such as ribbons, fake greens or other plastics, tinsel or electric Christmas lights. It’s a very garden Christmas. Likewise at Christmas, that same variety is echoed in the decorations. The creative license of the residents and tradespeople of Colonial Williamsburg are put to resourceful use in an annual contest for the best Christmas decorations. Blue ribbons are highly regarded.

"The decorating contest was begun in the 1940’s (not too much before the introduction of the now-famed fruit and nut-laden Della Robia wreaths and garlands) to encourage the town’s residents (who were not employees then) to decorate with more natural materials. Today the contest continues but the residents of the Historic Area are primarily employees of Colonial Williamsburg (its shops, museums, research, administration and of course the period interpreters who bring the historic site to life - in and out of the garden). They are expected to decorate their homes in a manner representative of Colonial Williamsburg Christmas celebration. They can choose to decorate the entire house (doorway, windows, etc.) or just the main entrance. Suggestions for period-appropriate materials are given along with decorating resources. A panel of three judges determine the winning decorations. In addition, a Colonial Williamsburg garden expert serves as technical advisor to assure that winning decorations conform to the guidelines. Use of inappropriate decorations automatically disqualify a residence from being considered for an award. Judges consider the use of materials, color, the elements of design (balance, harmony, scale, etc.), creativity, and faithfulness to the spirit of the building’s eighteenth-century use. Doorway decorations are judged a second time mid-December with a focus on the condition of the decorations and adherence to the resident’s original decorative ideas."

Today's program falls on the Winter Solstice itself – where here in my garden there will be 9.28.14 of daylight and 14.31.46 hours of dark across this 24 hour period. And while the nights will seem long, and the stars bright in the mornings, for some time still, the days are actually getting a little tiny bit longer every day now. Tomorrow you may feel that small new sense of brightness? In this conversation with Laura, one of the things I love is the idea of the brightness that greening up our doorways and mantles, stairways and garden gates brings to us each winter season – how this symbolic, living beauty is an embodiment of hope. Just as our gardens are year-round. Something that really resonated with me was when Laura touches on how decorating tastes and styles have changed over time, and how true this is, and yet like garden styles as well – some things remain so classic – greens on a mantel, red berries, searching for light in the winter's beauty and restorative darkness.

These constants connect us as gardeners and plant folk over time and space. Happy Solstice to you and your gardens and greater landscapes.

Cultivating Place is an award-winning co-production of North State Public Radio, where it airs every Thursday at 10 am PST.

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