What's Your Motif?
Local museums offer a treasure trove of decorating ideas. Especially if you’re choosing a theme.
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One of these things is not like the others: Rudolph, Santa Claus and Jane Austen. If you’ve read or watched “Pride & Prejudice,” you know Jane Austen is not a holiday character.
No matter. The early 19th-century author inspired the yuletide decorations at the Historic Houses of Odessa’s Corbit-Sharp House. And she’s not the first author to do so. Last year, Beatrix Potter served as inspiration for the fanciful decor. Fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel provided the theme in 2006.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve chosen 19th-century literature and recreated scenes,” says Brian Miller, the assistant curator, who also teaches art at Middletown High School. “Usually the theme is just one story, but we’ve deviated a little bit from that with authors.”
A theme is the backbone of other museums’ holiday trimmings. Winterthur is showcasing du Pont family customs, while Hagley’s stately Eleutherian Mills is highlighting antique toys, in addition to its traditional displays, which include a Colonial Revival Christmas.
For homeowners, the venues are repositories of holiday ideas, especially if you want to carry out a theme. You could allot a different theme for each room, or select an overall theme for the entire house.
Your home might have something to say about it.
“It’s important to keep in concert with the age of the house,” says Debra Hughes, curator at Hagley Museum and Library. There is some leeway depending on the house’s history. Eleutherian Mills, for instance, was built in 1803 by a French family that did not celebrate Christmas with fanfare. “It was mostly just a dinner,” Hughes says.
Christmas trees gained fame in the Victorian era. Yet there is no shortage of exuberantly decorated trees at Eleutherian Mills. That is because the house was restored by Louise du Pont Crowninshield, who lived there part time from 1925 to 1958. “Most of the house is in the Colonial Revival style,” Hughes says.
Colonial Revival, which began in the late 19th century with the Centennial, became especially fashionable after restoration started on Colonial Williamsburg in 1926, and its popularity continued far into the 20th century, especially on the East Coast. “I’m not sure it’s ever stopped,” Hughes says.
A Colonial Revival Christmas is not necessarily Colonial. “It’s how the folks in the early 20th century portrayed Colonial,” Hughes notes. Candles in the windows, garlands, wreaths, and bowls brimming with fruits and nuts are prime examples.
At Historic Houses of Odessa, Miller and his colleagues choose a theme in part based upon the collection at hand. Certainly, that is part of what is prompting Hagley this year to highlight antique toys. Winterthur this year is placing a new collection of toys in the library.
Homeowners can follow suit by sifting through their own decorations to see if there is a common thread. Think outside the Christmas storage box. You can incorporate dolls, toy trains and dried flowers.
Once you’ve decided on a theme for the house—or individual rooms—decide what you need to buy or borrow. For a Twelfth Night ball—a much-anticipated event during Austen’s time—Miller sought the help of the Dover Symphony Orchestra, whose members let him use their instruments. Last year, for the Beatrix Potter theme, he borrowed items from the Delaware Natural History Museum. Though we don’t all have access to museum collections, we can traipse down to the Dollar Store.
Miller reads books or watches movies related to the theme. He garnered plenty of ideas from Potter’s books, which she illustrated. A Georgian-style doll house in a bedroom last year became a prop for Miller’s interpretation of “The Tale of Two Bad Mice.”
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