To be historically accurate and decorate a famous old Charleston house in an 18th-century style, you wouldn’t really do much. Maybe make some garlands from fresh trimmings. Maybe lay some evergreen in the windows. Light a few candles.
“It would be fairly sparse,” said Jeff Neale, director of preservation and interpretation at Middleton Place, which operates the Edmonston-Alston House on the East Battery.
Christmas trees were introduced after the 1830s, he noted. Fresh fruit was hard to come by. Families that could afford them presented some fruit and nuts, and served fruit-filled pastries, which was an indulgence of the wealthy.
Today, though, we’ve got 24-hour chain grocery stores and intercontinental shipping by air and refrigerated containers. We can get whatever we want, seasonal or not. The fruit is affordable and the nuts aplenty.
Some historic sites in the Charleston area are trying to be authentic. Neale and his colleagues are re-creating 18th- and 19th-century decorations. Others are having a bit of fun.
The Nathaniel Russell House Museum at 51 Meeting St. will feature fruit, and lots of it, over the door.
The Joseph Manigault House at 350 Meeting St. will sparkle with lots of silver.
The house at Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mount Pleasant will feature wreaths and garlands, inside and out, along with 10 freshly cut Fraser firs in five rooms.
Meanwhile, many of the regular residences around town will rely heavily on electricity. This is what happens during the otherwise grayish Christmas season: The colors and lights come out in force.
Lauren Northrup, director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, which operates the Nathaniel Russell House, said it was Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia that inspired her to embrace the fruit.
There, the Williamsburgers deck the doors with fruit wreaths, apple fans, citrus garlands, holly trim, oyster-shell sculptures, even dried okra swags.
For seven years, Northrup has been using plywood forms spiked with nails onto which the fruit is impaled, and the approach seems to be catching on.
“I noticed two more in town this year,” she said.
The Nathaniel Russell House is one of two operated by Historic Charleston Foundation. The other is the Aiken Rhett House at 48 Elizabeth St. Decorating the historic houses adds pizzazz during the winter season. It’s a way to attract more visitors, Northrup said.
The fruit fan assembled and mounted on Dec. 11 contained a variety of citrus, some apples and pears, and a big pineapple in the middle. A magnolia garland was draped around the door.
“It’s not historically accurate at all,” Northrup said. If it were, the house probably would not be decorated at all. Well, maybe there’d be oranges, since they were in season.
The inside is adorned with fresh greens and more fruit by interior designer Taylor DeBartola, with a focus on the mantels and staircases.
Heather Rivet, Charleston Museum’s historic house manager, oversees two properties, the Joseph Manigault House at 350 Meeting St. and the Heyward-Washington House at 87 Church St.
The Heyward House is the older one, built in 1772. George Washington stayed there for a week in May 1791. Had he been there in December, he would have had the undecorated house to himself, since the Heywards tended to spend the holiday at their plantation home.
To this day, Rivet pretty much leaves the old house alone. But she pulls out a few stops at the Manigault mansion. For years the museum has partnered with the Garden Club of Charleston, which sends in its crew to have at it.
Each year the decorators ornament the various rooms with live greenery, flowers and other items. This year’s theme is “Charleston: A Sterling Silver Christmas,” so there’s silver, too.
“To some extent it’s historically accurate,” Rivet said. “But it’s not necessarily how the Manigaults would have decorated the house.”
At Boone Hall, the decorations adhere to instructions set forth years ago by Nancy McRae, who with her husband, Harris, purchased the property in 1955, according to Director of Marketing Rick Benthall. Tree decorations reflect the original use of each room (formal greeting area, casual gathering area and so on). Wreaths and poinsettias are distributed liberally throughout the house.
It is thought that the enslaved people on the plantation made tree ornaments with sweetgrass and cotton, according to Floral and Garden Specialist Dot Young. So Boone Hall's Christmas trees feature replicas.
Neale said he’s got two floors of the Edmonston-Alston House to work with, and his team has put evergreens, berries, aromatic bay leaves and garlands to good use, along with candles. Lots of candles.
“We’ve also got the dining room table decorated for a holiday meal,” he said. That means fancy pastries, fruit cakes and bowls of nuts.
The ground floor is meant to emulate the early 1800s, when the Edmonstons lived there. The second floor is reminiscent of the mid-1800s, when the Alstons ruled the roost. By then, Christmas trees were in use, Neale noted.
Oh, and one more thing you’ll see there: mistletoe.
“There’s a large cluster of mistletoe, for obvious reasons,” Neale said, mysteriously.