Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Wreaths of Darlington, and Thoughts on Christmas This Year

This past weekend we started to decorate Darlington for Christmas.  Some people might say, "You call that decorating? You guys are hardly doing anything!"  And they'd be right, at least if one aspired to recreating a retail Christmas experience at one's house.  Which we don't.

A simple twig wreath on the door to our barn

As I wrote last year, we like our Christmas decorations to be understated, natural, and—in many cases—vintage.  Not kitschy vintage, mind you, but rather from an earlier era when the quality was better, and where the decorations—I'm referring to glass ornaments mostly—have an attractive patina.  You will not find our rooms at Darlington House at Christmas-time tangled with artificial garlands, bought at big-box retailers, and covered with tartan bows and twinkling lights; nor will you find every mantle and tabletop "merchandised" with collections of pseudo-vintage Santa Clauses, made-in-China nutcrackers, or pretty-in-pink cast resin ballerinas.

At our house we will unpack and set out a cherished collection of antique Black Forest carved bears, along with a diminutive Neapolitan creche from the 1950s, and a set of a dozen or so little Delft blue-and-white houses that KLM used to give out to its first class passengers years ago.  But that's about as far as we go in the Christmas "collectibles" department.

Fresh magnolia wreaths,
waiting to be hung on the house

When it comes to a tree, we cut ours down at a local farm, and we decorate it with a combination of recently-made and vintage ornaments that we've been collecting for as long as we've been together.  I think we probably have several thousand to choose from by now.  You can be assured that you won't find any new Christopher Radko "theme" ornaments ("Look! It's a Wizard of Oz Christmas!") anywhere near our tree, although I suspect I could possibly be talked into making an exception for his rather good reproductions of vintage Shiny Bright ornaments.  And just as we decorate with restraint inside the house, our exterior decorations are similarly subdued: you will never see strings of multi-colored dancing icicle lights hanging from the eaves of Darlington House, nor will there ever be hardware-store inflatable snow globes littering our lawns.  And I mean never.

Floral wire: the secret weapon for
successful Christmas decorating

This year, we've decided to be even more understated in our Christmas decorations at Darlington House, both inside and out, paring them down to their very essence.  Inside, we'll have a tree, of course, and we'll tuck evergreen branches along the tops of looking glasses and picture frames.  We already found and brought home a gorgeous balsam fir this past weekend, and we'll likely put it up either this coming weekend or (more likely) the next.  We probably won't finish decorating it until shortly before Christmas day.  We've already filled a dozen clay pots with paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs that I expect will start blossoming soon.  I also expect that Boy will fill several antique bowls with carefully selected vintage glass ball ornaments and place them about the house, as he usually does, and I will likely buy some Agraria Bitter Orange potpourri to fill a favorite Chinese export bowl in the drawing room.  I love the way it smells in the winter, as I have since I first delightedly came across it more than twenty-five years ago.

Two of the magnolia wreaths, hung on the windows
at the side entry to the house

Outside, we've already replaced the warm-weather plantings in our urns with evergreens, as we do every winter.  We're forgoing hanging garlands on our porches and portico this year, and we are only hanging wreaths instead.  We aren't putting ribbons on the wreaths as we like them best unadorned.  Boy had three wreaths made from fresh southern magnolia leaves in Manhattan's flower district this past Friday, and we hung them on Saturday.  They look marvelous.  We also strung exterior Christmas lights on a drift of lilac shrubs over the weekend—white and clear ones in a constellation of medium and small bulbs, just like on the trees on Park Avenue in Manhattan.  It's all so restrained and tasteful.

The wreath on the front door

One of the reasons we're not doing more with our Christmas decorations this year is that we aren't throwing a big holiday party this season, as we have in each of the last four or five years.  We've done quite a bit of entertaining already this year, and Reggie—to be honest—could use a break.  He's more than happy to have others pick up the reins this time around.  He has been enjoying attending some holiday parties in Manhattan during the week in December (yes, they've already started), and he is looking forward to attending several more over the coming weeks.  Even though we're not throwing a big bash at Darlington House this year, we'll probably still invite some good friends over for a "hep yo seff" drinks party at some point over the holidays, since Reggie and Boy are, at the end of the day, social animals and like to entertain.

It looks like I'll need to stock up on some more
of this divine gin to get through the holidays . . .

Aside from attending parties, one of the pleasures of this time of year (and for those of us attempting to watch our figures, one of the pitfalls) is going out for end-of-the-year celebratory meals in restaurants with friends and family, and, in Reggie's and Boy's cases, entertaining clients and employees, too.  I've booked tables in a number of swell restaurants in Manhattan for such get-togethers, including one at Grammercy Tavern and another at La Grenouille, among other places, which should be great fun.  I am particularly looking forward to taking the people who work for me at the Investment Bank out to a very nice holiday luncheon.  They've worked hard this year, and they deserve recognition for it.

So, why is it, as I wrote this post—which started out as a "Let's show our wreaths!" one and has since evolved into more of a Christmas commentary—that I felt I was somehow coming up short this year when it came to climbing on the Christmas-spirit bandwagon?  And I remembered, yet again, that I am susceptible to the trumped-up-nostalgia and merchandising madness that rears its head this time of year, that insists that Christmas should be the happiest, jolliest, most present-filled, and most overdecorated time of the year in order to not fall short of expectation, or avoid bitter disappointment.  Once I recognized this—which is a lesson that I have to relearn every year, it seems—I was able to give myself permission to opt out of the emotional and financial rabbit hole that such a vision of Christmas can drop many of us into.  And when I did, I felt a lot better about the way we are celebrating Christmas this year at Darlington House—which is discretely and in a mostly understated way and where the focus is not so much on the stuff, or the decorations, or the parties, but rather on what, and whom, we have to be grateful for.

And that's just fine with me.

 All photographs by Boy Fenwick 


  1. Come on.. your picking fresh greens over inflatable snow men.. shame on you ;) Well said is right! xx

  2. it is very true, and I am for the most part in strong agreement, may yours be merry- I can not imagine it being otherwise. For me a real delight this year has been meeting you Darling.

  3. I like a low key and less decorated Christmas too. We're doing nothing at all this year as we're still under construction, and I'm fine with that.

    I'm not much of an ornament guy, preferring mostly glass balls on our tree. I do own a couple boxes of those Radko Shiny Brite repros, but they always seem to end up in an old ironstone bowl on the dining room table.

  4. Reggie your holiday design philosphy is one I have adopted. Almost all of my former trimmings are stored and will go to my daughter soon.

    I love magnolia wreathes and do have several, I like to put just a few red berry twigs amonst the leaves.

    Art by Karena

  5. Ah Reggie, we must be getting old, you and I, for I feel exactly the same way. We have done the same as you, a wreath outside filled with berries from the garden and the tree inside, decorated with ornaments I made 36 years ago copying some I saw on the windows at Bergdorfs.

    The real joy will be spending Christmas morning with my family and watching my grandaughter dressing up in Princess gowns that Nani Lindaraxa has bought for her (talk about tacky, you should see the tiara!) But I think that a lot of people feel the same way..the last couple of years have grounded us a bit and I hope the trend continues, life is so much easier and meaningful this way.

    The one thing I will miss are the Christmas celebrations in the city. There is no other city in the world that does it better than New York...and the corporate lunches, boy I am pea green!

  6. I just think Christmas wouldn't be the same without "pretty-in-pink cast resin ballerinas". Goodness, what are they?!

    I have "a set of a dozen or so little Delft blue-and-white houses that KLM used to give out to its first class passengers years ago", which I've never known what to do with, and we keep accumulating them as it's our preferred choice of airline from here to Scotland, avoiding Heathrow.

    But seriously, I'm with you on the lack of tacky. There's not much in the way of natural firs and suchlike here, so I don't bother at all, except in the floral arrangements, with plenty of red amongst green.

    But as for the rest of the scene, it has long turned me off, and we avoid the forced jolity of as much as possible. Materialism in this and other "holiday shopping season" (Bloomberg) periods has made this an extremely unattractive experience.

    The most understated with the least expectations has meant that sometimes the real meaning of Christmas gets a look in. So it's much better to be laid back about it.

  7. At Linderhof, we try to avoid Christmas tacky as well -- the tree -- a big tree with old fashioned lights and tinsel, fresh greenery on the mantles, pinecones in bowls,Grandmother's nativity set, and poinsettias for that Christmas touch of red (we save the paperwhites for January when it seems so barren).

    It's much easier to decorate without having to haul boxes of "tacky" Christmas up from the cellar or down from the attic. And it's much easier to undecorate -- a trash sack and you're done!!!

    I am amazed, however, when we have guests and they look around and with an almost stunned expression say how lovely it is -- because it is so simple.

    So I am agreeing with you and find your decorations at Darlington lovely -- love the magnolia wreaths!

  8. I could not agree more with your holiday decorating strategy. Best wishes!

  9. Dearest R, If you consider the decorations at Darlington House to be understated, believe me my Maid Vale house is positively naked in comparison. The tree, real of course, will be erected and decorated on Christmas Eve usually accompanied by the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge broadcast on the radio. Paperwhite Narcissi in pots around the house are the only other forms of ornamentation.. Not a wreath, a garland, a flashing reindeer or climbing Santa in sight.

    Who was it who said....." Perfection is reached not when there is no more to be added but when there is nothing else to remove"....a perfect philosophy regarding Christmas decorations I feel.

    I do so hope that you both have a wonderful holiday time.

  10. Oh, I'm sure it is all so beautiful!

    I gave myself permission to get a fake tree last year. ~sigh~ Christmas is my busiest time and when we head north for a week or so on Christmas Day, all I think about is coming home to a smoldering heap.

    It was very freeing.....tacky, but freeing ;-)

  11. There is a real sweetness to restraint, if one has a fine enough sensibility to appreciate it.

  12. Oh what can I say? Christmas turns me into the Down East Schizophrenic. On the one hand, I decorate pretty much as you do---restrained, understated, natural materials. On the other, I flat out love it and smile from ear to ear when I pass a house that has the full flotilla of lights and bulbs and inflatables on display--loved seeing it as a child, and still do as an adult. Just not at my house....although I do sort of miss those giant colored bulbs of my youth.

    (My parents, who were strictly green wreathes and white window candles at the house, had a large spruce tree in a field on their hilltop property, which my father would always cause to be covered with hundreds of big colored light bulbs, visible from all over the village---and it was much loved. So, there's no better or worse, as you say, just happy variety. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go search out a few pine cones for the dining room mantel. Cheers

  13. One of my favorite Christmases Past was your first at Darlington House. Boy and I had so much fun wrapping presents that we ended up wrapping lots of things that weren't even gifts.

    Remember the house we drove past with a fence decorated with pre-made red bows..... still inside their plastic bags?

    xox Camilla

  14. Dear Reggie,

    Our home is decorated with plain greens and red candles. After living in Germany for half of my life I grew to appreciate Advent where people try to slow down, reflect and appreciate peacefulness. Christmas music of the jolly, ho-ho variety came from the States, but traditional music is Ava Maria or Handel. Now too we have many books which we try to read from during the week which are filled with stories about how people celebrate or with winter fairy tales like "The Mitten" or poems about winter. We don't take things too seriously; if the story makes us feel inferior due to our lack of industrious baking, then we move onto a story that gives us more pleasure! My all-time favorite story is written from the perspective of a middle-aged man and how he reflects on being in the hospital as a young boy. The hospital was on the mainland, but his family lived on an island in the North Sea. Bit by bit his eight-bed room emptied until he was the only one left. On Christmas Eve as he was feeling quite lonely, his father appeared to visit him. The trip to the hospital involved quite a few hurdles, but there he was! I cry every time!

    Reggie, all the best to you this holiday season. May it be filled with wonderful experiences you share with your dear readers and with things for which you will feel very grateful.

  15. Slightly off-topic but where do you live in the Hudson Valley region? I live in the town of Cold Spring.

  16. Reggie, You captured the true (my) spirit of Xmas. Amen! --- Did I miss a photo of the Thanksgiving table with the Old Paris? I'm curious, with the pink color, what centerpiece flower did you use. Oh, by the way I bring out all my gold and white old Paris for Xmas and that's about as far as I go. Merry Xmas to you.

  17. You had me, as they say, at the barn door. [sounds wicked, doesn't it] And while we're on Gratitude, thank you for the ability to blow up your photos so beautifully. I screened up the barn door as big as it would go and moaned aloud at the perfection of every detail, I almost felt present at the long-ago conversation around "Shall we leave the iron straps and latch black, or paint them out....well, let's leave the only black note at the lantern, otherwise the eye will perceive a discordant triangle of black." Or so I thought I heard. The lantern, that can't have been an accidental purchase, wow. A gorgeous door, and a beautiful photo.

    That particular magnolia with the brown suede-like underside becomes positively lyrical as it dries [some say 'dies' but I prefer dries]. I've clipped branches of that same species and put them all over our house, some have started to dry and that's when the leaves curl and undulate, they take on an entirely new form, the glossy vivid green side turns a mottled shade of sage and suddenly the veining appears, it's something to behold so give a thought to saving those wreaths even after the leaves have dried.

    I can't imagine more beautiful Christmas decorations than those you and Boy have selected and set around.

  18. Well said. Wreaths are so simply perfect in all there amazing materials provided by nature.

    I can live vicariosly through you, but with a husband and kids, shiny and a bit commercial will be present at the A&A house, that I always hope to pull off tastefully.

    Oh, and I love that you hate inflatables, not that it was a surprise! Me too!!!

  19. Living in the South, decorating with pine and magnolia branches, pinecones and nandina berries from the yard or garden is my style. Fresh greenery and real candles are glorious, but Reggie, no tartan bows??? I don't know....Not even ONE tartan bow??? ;)

  20. What a blessing to see that someone still decorates with fresh materials! I live in a neighborhood where inflatables have sprung up like bad weeds. How I hate them! We have an abundance of holly with lovely red berries and and beautiful pines and I use these. No tacky box store garland for me. We even give Paratas our stone dog on the terrace a holly crown. I love Christmas and using the fresh pine and holly makes so much more special. Thank you Reggie for such a lovely blog. It is like getting a Christmas gift all year round. Jane Keller

  21. For me Christmas has always been about the smells. An artificial tree, no matter how well done (and I have seen some pretty convincing ones)can not compete with the wild, fresh smell of a real tree. Does an artificial tree send the cats skittering around as they chase imaginary invaders?

    I have a boxwood wreath (no ribbon) on my gate this year, and a string of tiny red, blue, and green lights around my front door. No tree, though.

    I was thinking about the agraria bitter orange the other day, but couldn't remember the name. Now I can track it down online and give myself a christmas prezzie.

    Especially love the twig wreath!

    your sister, Hermione

  22. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Once again, I couldn't agree with you more. I too favor natural and restrained decorations. I see you use the English tradition of decorating the tops of your picture frames and looking-glasses with evergreens. Growing up in England, we did the same thing and I've carried forth that tradition to my own home here in
    America. Please consider writing a blog entry about your treasured vintage ornaments. I've been collecting mine for at least 20 years now and those beguiling glass orbs and exotic shapes are getting harder to find (although I scored handsomely last week with a silver German kugel). I'm very much enjoying
    your beautifully photographed decorations. Thank you once again for sharing with us.

  23. Oh dear, how did I miss this post? Your wreaths take my breath away. I wholeheartedly agree with your Darlington Christmas philosophy. I would rather enjoy my loved ones and the time I spend with them. I think that is a gift in itself...which often gets overlooked in the holiday pandemonium. Very well put!


  24. Reggie --

    This is more or less the way I decorate in the country -- plus a twelve-foot tree that goes in the front hall -- so I naturally approve your austerity as well as your choice of gin, which I trust you are pairing with Dolin Dry Vermouth.

    This year, unfortunately, I am obliged to stay in the city. My revenge will be to go to the opposite extreme -- with florists, designers, and a succession of caterers doing the first two floors of the house in crypto-Edwardian splendor. (There's to be several parties, which I dread, and expect to survive only with the aid of Father Bollinger or Old Tom himself!)

    P.S. Do you hang on to the magnolia wreathes until they turn to bronze?


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