The Holiday Mantel


I have no idea where the tradition of decorating a mantel for the holidays came from.  Perhaps people gathering at a cold time around a roaring fireplace made the fireplace mantle visually important.  Everyone knows the chimney is Santa’s portal-why not make it festive?  I do know that the fireplace mantel is an ideal place for collections of all kinds.  Small objects that need an elevated shelf to be seen, objects of personal or family importance-a mantel can be home to all manner of objects that please, or represent a point of view.  My mantel at home changes whenever the mood strikes me.  There are times when it is empty, and times when it is piled high.  But however you treat your mantel at the holidays-formally or traditionally, as in this mantel-there are construction issues.  

A mantel is a very long, and very shallow space.  It is but one shelf-there are no changes of level built in.  A holiday garland whether fresh or faux weighs plenty.  How to keep it on the mantle and off the floor comes first.  In this case, four very heavy bronze candlesticks provide an anchor for the garland.  Not interested in candlesticks on your mantle?  Drive a series of small brads into the wood mantle surface near the wall, or in the wall.  Appalled at the idea of driving nails?  Lead weights, or bricks can anchor your display, and be invisible.    

Sometimes a holiday mantel calls for a holiday expression on the wall above it.  I find I focus much more on the white rectangular space above a mantel, than the mantel surface itself.  If there is a print, painting or mirror above that mantel, perhaps it could be included in the mantel treatment.  These clients have a considerable collection of native American art-the magnolia and pussy willow holiday medallion was designed and fabricated in that vein.   

The designer Ann Heath, whom I greatly admire, told me just a few weeks ago that she likes holiday decor on the mantel that does not trail to the floor. A horizontal expression-only. I have this idea under consideration.  This holiday mantel treatment is very formal and low key-much like the room. I did the mantel surface only-no trailers.  The picks and pieces are secured to the mantel via 3 coulter pine cones.  Coulter pine cones, the largest, and most certainly the heaviest of any pine cone on this planet, are the ballast for this display.  Faux white pine picks take easily to cut stems of German boxwood.  Bark ornaments and pearl ball clusters weigh next to nothing-the stiff bristles of the white pine help hold some elements aloft.  My recommendation for mantel decor-build up to some height.  Come out away from the wall.  A mantel decoration may be long and thin, but it should be as three dimensional as you can manage.  

Pine cones look like they belong on the mantel.  They are just one of many of nature’s beautiful objects, but they shine in the winter months.   I collect them from the park next door; I buy them from Oregon, California, and North Carolina.  Their shapes are beautiful-no matter the evergreen from whence they came.  The story and the science of the production of cones-astonishing.  The science aside,what gardener does not recognize them as naturally beautiful objects asking for a holiday home.  The more, the better.   

I have in my mind’s eye a mantel overflowing with cones, seed pods, fresh greens, grapevine, bird’s nests just collected once the leaves fell, rose hips, grasses, twigs, bracket fungus-the mantel that is the forest floor.  But there are those who have a different point of view.  Lime green glitter net, lime moss, purple anodized wire-stars from gold wire wesh-this mantel is a smart and sassy holiday dress all my client’s own.  She chose the materials.  From what I know of her, she has a holiday mantel distinctively all her own. I admire the effort anyone takes to express themselves.

Not everyone has a limestone mantel and fireplace surround.  But everyone has a home and hearth worth celebrating.  Get dressed-it’s the holidays.   

No matter how or how much or why you garden, you have something to say all your own.  The holidays are inviting you to speak your peace.  I will be lucky to get the house decorated before Buck and I celebrate our Christmas on Christmas Eve.  But I will give what I have to see that we are ready.  The mantle-what I will do do this year, I have no idea.  No matter-I am looking forward to it.

The Mantle

2005 Hudas Winter (19)Fireplace mantles were invented so we could put stuff on them, right? I do have clients with contemporary homes that do away with the frivolity of a mantle, but I like them for what I can do with them.  More than most architectural features, a fireplace is a visual representation of the idea of home-a place around which to gather, be warm, and be safe.  A mantle can be home to a revolving collection of objects during the year; their height makes them perfect for displaying those small personal things that benefit from a placement at eye level.  But a mantle is never more in its glory than it is at the holidays.  Traditionally, gardeners drag all sorts of materials in from outdoors, and custom construct a holiday coat that dresses up that shelf over the fireplace.  This mantle began with a natural garland, to which Jeffrey pine cones, nests, cardinals, holly and berry picks were added.  Very warm and cozy.

2005 Hudas Winter (17)I like a garland centerpiece.  In this case, a small wreath constructed of individual pine cone bits identifies the center.  The feathered red birds, a symbol of the wildlife so precious in a garden, are nesting here and there.  A natural garland may dry quickly indoors, but the smell of fresh greens in season is a little bit of heaven at home.

2007 Vlasic, Paul HOLIDAY 12-6-07 (7)Armoires, cabinets and the like can be dressed up with garland as well.  This antique china cabinet has a gorgeous spiky hat of faux pine and giant cones. A stately and quiet nod to the season.  

2005 Hudas Winter (3)Formal fireplaces adapt to dressing just fine.  White berry garlands, clear creamy snowflakes and ornately carved ornaments are appropriate to the limestone, silver, and formal furnishings in the room.   

2005 Hudas Winter (7)If I use ornament on a mantle, I like to hang some over the edge.  This can be a construction problem, if the mantle is shallow, and the garland heavy.  In this case, I loaned my client lead pot feet, which I wired to the garland. These keeps everything securely on top, even though the display spills over the front edge. Some garland I attach to a bamboo pole that runs the entire length of the mantle. Once the heaviest element is stabilized, I can add on.

2005 Hudas Winter (34)This garland is woven with large old fashioned white lights, and red LED berry clusters.  The garland is wired to a heavy iron candelabra. As this fireplace is in the family room, and host to gathering involving grandkids, all the ornament is plastic.  Kids so like to touch things-and why shouldn’t they?  

Bondy_0003A holiday mantle can be glamorous.  The relationship of the large pearly ornaments and birch tubes is an interesting one.  I cannot imagine how the bark is removed intact from a birch log, but here they are.  The light weight makes them perfect for hanging over the edge of the mantle.  White at the holidays is beautiful.

Bondy_0007A pair of tall cone shaped topiaries are finished in off-white double faced satin.  This ribbon is a sumptuous material that shines softly. This treatment over a cone form is so fast and easy, it can be changed out for other seasons.   

2007 Vlasic, Paul HOLIDAY 12-6-07 (16)There is ornament designed specifically for mantles; they are usually narrow and quite heavy.  Close to Christmas, the children’s stockings will be hung from them.  An artificial pine garland is augmented with fresh noble fir; if artificial greens are the order of the day, adding some natural greens greatly improve the overall appearance. 

2007 Vlasic, Paul HOLIDAY 12-6-07 (17)Glass ornaments in wine red and chocolate complete the look.  The faux white pine has pleasingly overscaled needles that give this mantle a very festive look.  I like bringing the feeling of the outdoors inside.