DIY: Historic Holiday Decor

By now I’m sure you all know I’m obsessed with the Beauregard-Keyes House and its Executive Director, Ella Camburnbeck. As if we needed another reason to love the historic home, Ella has filled its halls with handmade holiday decorations that harken back to days of Victorian romance, wassailing and Christmas bonnets. I asked her to give us an overview on how to create the decor in our own homes. Read on and check out Sarah Becker Lillard’s fantastic photos of the House at this festive time of year!

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

The holiday decorations at the Beauregard-Keyes house are reminiscent of what a typical nineteenth century New Orleans home might have used. Godey’s Lady’s Book has been one of my most trusted references for decorating- it was the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War and was an incredible resource for women of the day when it came to fashion and entertaining.

A 1860 edition detailed holiday decorations this way: “Christmas decorations include strings of bright berries, small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flag of gray ribbons, stars and shields of gilt paper, lace bag filled with colored candies, and knots of bright ribbon, all homemade.” 

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

So, thanks to Godey’s – everything that you see around the House has been handmade and I try to source as many things from our gardens as possible. As a result everything smells pretty amazing and is relatively simple to make as long as you have a little patience!

For the mantle topiaries I use calamondins from our tree in the Parterre Garden however, once you have your base you could use kumquats, pinecones, or any other type of fruit you have around the yard or house. Our bases belonged to Mrs. Keyes and are made of wooden cones with nails protruding to affix the fruit to, however you can make your own out of a Styrofoam cone and toothpicks.

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

YOU WILL NEED:

  • Foam Topiary cone
  • Toothpicks
  • Glue (I recommend hot glue)
  • Fruit of choice
  • Greenery of choice

TO MAKE:

Put a dab of glue at one end of your toothpick and then insert that end into the cone. Layer the toothpicks in concentric circles down the cone, I recommend spacing your toothpicks based on the size of fruit you plan to use (Our nails are relatively close thus the tiny calamondins works perfectly!). Once the toothpicks are in place and the glue has dried you can start applying a piece of fruit to each tooth pick. (HINT-don’t pierce the place on the fruit where the stem was, this will help the fruit stay fresher, longer!). Once all of your fruit is in place choose your background greenery- I use the scraps from our garland however you can use boxwood trimmings, sprigs from your Christmas tree, or any other greenery you have in your yard- I recommend selecting something with a relatively flexible stem so it can better hug your cone.

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

Finally, starting from the bottom and working up the cone, fill in the spaces between your fruit with the greenery- this part can be a little tricky because the greenery tends to want to twist and turn its own way, feel free to use a little bit of hot glue to keep parts in place. Voila! You’re done! Well almost, depending on the fruit you use you will have to replace it about once a week, I try and check mine every 3-4 days to make sure nothing is rotting.

These topiaries are great for tablescapes, mantles, or you could even do larger ones for your front porch! Have fun with it, invite friends over to help and be creative- Historically, making decorations was a chance to bring people together and share in the celebration of the season, and I think that’s certainly a little piece of the past worth carrying on.

Beauregard Keyes House | DIY Holiday Decor

A LITTLE MORE HISTORY:

When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.

The most widely read account of an early Christmas tree was published in a penny pamphlet in 1832:[1]

“I was present at the introduction into the new country of the spectacle of the German Christmas tree.  My little friend Charley [Follen’s son] and three companions had been long preparing for this pretty show.  The cook had broken eggs carefully in the middle for some weeks past, that Charley might have the shells for cups; and these cups were gilded and coloured very prettily. We were all engaged in sticking on the last seven dozen of wax tapers, and in filling the gilded egg-cups and gay paper cornucopiae with comfits, lozenges, barley sugar.  The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub, which was ornamented with moss.  Smart toys and other whimsies glittered in the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it.  It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire…I have no doubt the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics in New England.”

from an article about Christmas decorations of the period from an 1860 issue of Godey’s Magazine, also known as Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, that was the most popular magazine in the country at the time with a circulation of 150,000: “Christmas decorations include strings of bright berries, small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flag of gray ribbons, stars and shields of gilt paper, lace bag filled with colored candies, and knots of bright ribbon, all homemade.”

*photos by Sarah Becker Photography

This post originally appeared on A-Little-Happy.com, a website I founded that served as a site to inspire creatives & entrepreneurs to obtain a better work-life balance. The site garnered over 78,000 views. It has since been discontinued.  

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