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.

Time To Trim

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Once the garland is on the mantle, the wreath is up, and the tree is in its stand, it’s time to trim.  Though some say there is no art involved in trimming a tree or garland, there are a few things I think make for a more beautiful result.  There are no end of choices for trimming.  Some people like natural materials or ornament made from natural materials.  Some like a little gleam, glitter and glitz. My personal preference-the ability to change things from year to year. But no matter in what manner I might be trimming, I have a method.

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I have clients with what I call family history trees. At the very least the ornaments have been collected over a period of years, and represent the history of the family holidays.  Some ornament is handmade by children, family members, or friends. A friend has a tree decorated entirely with birds and beasts of every description and in varying materials.  The inspiration for this tree?  An ornament of an animal that he gave his Mom as a small child he found wrapped in tissue in her jewelry box after he lost her. His tree is about his memories of her, and their relationship. The ornaments for trees like this tend to be all different materials, and all different colors-how can the trimming be done in a cohesive way? 

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Woody has amassed a collection of spheres of all types and sizes that he adds to the members of his ark. The round shape is repeated all over the tree, giving the tree an overall pattern the eye can make sense of.  I should add that he arranges the animals, birds and insects differently every year.  One year he organizes by breed, another year he may organize by color.   The family tree pictured above is pulled together visually by means of a bell garland that winds its way from top to bottom.  The bell garland signals immediately that this is a family tree, designed to delight the children in the household.

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Garlands are not only beautiful in their own right, they help stitch a visual project together. Once I have put the individual ornaments on a tree, I will add the garland.  I can follow the pattern of the lights, spiral down the tree, or make horizontal or vertical stripes.  Good garland is wired everywhere-so individual branchlets can be fluffed out, and stand proud of the silhouette of the tree.  If I am installing garland outdoors, I soak a section in water for a while to be sure it can hold up to wet weather.

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Ribbon makes a great garland. I like a substantial wiring in both edges of the ribbon, so it will pouf out and stay where I want it.  I am one of those ribbon-challenged individuals.  I glue my bows together, as the ones I make with my own hands are  pretty sorry looking. I’ve been known to shorten pants and upholster chairs with my gluegun too.  But wired ribbon makes me look good, as it is easy to arrange.  After all, trimming the Christmas tree is supposed to be fun, not frustrating.

2007 Perenic, Lynn 11-29-07 (10)Lynn’s very unusual and striking Christmas tree is a foam form covered in preserved chartreuse leaves.  This form is the most important visual element; there are only a few ornaments.  The “garland” is actually aluminum wire that floats around the tree like the rings around Saturn.  Only every so often is the wire is secured to the tree.  The column vase with a ball top-a purchase at Smith and Hawkins many years ago.  I filled the bottom of the vase with white sand-this provides a secure base for the tree.  Red tinsel garland, and red and green bead garland fill the ball portion of the vase. 

Dec 16 001This mantle is dressed in a beautifully made artificial pine garland.  Finished in Jeffrey pine cones, it has great textural interest. Now what?

Dec 16 005It’s the small bits that bring it to life. Small plain glass balls-shiny and matte-add depth, interest, and density to any trimming project. Clusters of tiny red ornaments look like berries on a tree.  Clusters of larger red ornaments hung on the interior of a tree get the tree full of color, just as it is full of light; one’s prized ornaments can be front and center on the tips of the tree branches. 

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This is a landscape of a different sort, but a landscape, nonetheless.