Dressing the Mantel

Infusing design and tradition for Christmas

Robert Clark

Decorating for the holidays is a guaranteed way to bring joy and a festive spirit to the home and express personal styles and traditions. Many lace fresh garland around the banister or add the perfect wreath to the front door. Others create a showcase in the heart of the home. The mantel often provides an important focal point for holiday decorations, enabling families to display special keepsakes, share traditions new and old, or simply create a show-stopping design.

For Susie and Charles Dibble, their living room mantel is the most important backdrop for their family on Christmas morning. As a long-held family tradition, the Dibble family awakens early Christmas morning to attend Trinity Cathedral and help feed the homeless. After this essential part of their day, the family returns home to enjoy a breakfast of their own in the living room by the fireplace. “It’s the place where we gather and talk about how we have shared ourselves with others that morning,” says Susie. “It’s God’s call to us to serve others a hot breakfast before we take care of ourselves. It’s very important to all of our family.”

Because of this tradition, Susie goes to great lengths to create a beautiful environment in which her family will spend the entire day. Each year, Susie infuses tradition into her mantelpiece, finding the most luscious Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples to feature on the mantel, as her mother did when Susie was growing up. Each apple is dipped in floor wax to provide a nice sheen and help preserve the fruit for the duration of the holiday season. She then puts the apples on floral stakes and sticks them into a floral oasis. Susie complements the apples by draping fresh greenery over the mantel, resulting in a natural, opulent appearance.

“We like to combine a very natural look along with family traditions,” says designer Caroline Matthews, who advised Susie on her mantel design this year. “For many people, the goal isn’t to make Christmas different. Christmas is a time for tradition. There is something comforting about doing some of the things that your mother did to make things special. Having said that, we are fortunate that there are ways to make these designs a little easier and last a little longer.”

Having a water source is integral. Without it, fresh greens are needed about every three days. During the holidays, no one needs extra tasks; therefore, finding a floral oasis that continually provides water to the greens and flowers on the mantel is instrumental.

With six mantels throughout their home, Ellen and Stanton Adkins have a myriad of ways to instill holiday spirit at their house. Their home was built in 1902, and the mantels are the focal point of each room. Lovely original woodwork, carvings, pillars, and tile adorn the various mantels, bringing out the beauty of each original piece. Three downstairs mantels are decorated annually. The other three, located in upstairs bedrooms, were often decorated by the Adkins’ now-grown children, who were always creative in their decor and individual designs.

The Adkins decorate their downstairs mantels in a way that reflects family, traditions, accomplishments, and school activities, while also bringing in complementary fresh foliage of South Carolina. Ellen’s parents purchased a Fontanini manger scene at Gibson’s in Columbia and, over the years, added a new piece to the special collectible until it was complete. Ellen and her children set out the manger scene the first Sunday in December, signaling the start of the Christmas season for their family. While the manger is still often placed on the living room mantel, each year Ellen adds a special touch to the mantels based on current events in their lives. One year, for example, when her children had just finished reading Harry Potter, they decorated the mantels in green and purple with lights and handmade ornaments such as the Quidditch “snitch” and small brooms. Another year, all of the children were in the Nutcracker ballet so each mantel featured nutcrackers.

“We hope that our children keep these traditions alive to remember the true meaning of the holiday ... to make a difference for others,” she says. “The most special decorations are the ones the children have made.” To be sure, Ellen’s children are the inspiration for many of her mantel decorations. She has even gone so far as to include her children’s framed diplomas on the mantel after each graduated from college.

Both Susie and Ellen include Christmas stockings on their holiday mantels. Ellen and Charles’ stockings were knitted by their respective aunts, and Charles’ aunt also knitted the children’s stockings. The stockings have stood the test of time, one even sporting a hole burnt from the heat of the fireplace, which is always crackling on cool Christmas mornings.

The Adkins’ stockings hang from letters that spell out “Santa.” Oftentimes, “little elves” change the spelling to spell out their names, adding fun and whimsy to the family’s Christmas holiday.

When decorating the mantel, homeowners should create a look that best fits the family’s individual style. No one design works for everyone.

“Generally, I like natural things, but it all depends on your style,” says Denice Degenhart, a designer who assisted the Adkins with their mantels this year. “I like to include native, natural, organic pieces on the mantel. I don’t typically use a lot of artificial pieces. You can go all out using a lot of greenery — it will look like you’ve put in a great deal of effort when it’s just a simple design.”

Some important steps help greenery last longer. “Gather your greenery ahead of time and immediately put it in water to make sure it’s fully hydrated,” says Caroline. “I like to put my greenery in hot water. This helps pop sap pockets and allows the water to flow through the branches to the leaves and needles. If you’re putting up decorations very early, you may want to consider pine cones, Christmas balls, or angels, rather than fresh foliage. Ribbon is always a good option to give you that little pop of color. If you have a wooden mantel, you may want to cover it so it will not get damaged from the water or sap.”

Denice also finds hydration to be the key factor to success with live greenery or foliage. She will typically cut the fresh greenery the day before decorating and condition it by using a product such as Floralife to help keep the greenery alive and fresh for a longer period of time.

“I like to put the greenery in an oasis in flat containers. This gives more longevity to the design and enables you to easily water the greens on the mantel,” she says.

From magnolias and cedar to spruce and pines, you can find the ideal greenery right in your own backyard. Adding bright red Nandina berries to the greenery provides nice holiday colors to the backdrop. (Be careful to ensure that small hands cannot reach the toxic berries!) White lights create an elegant tableau, although Denice cautions about using lights if the greenery does not have a water source since the lights can dry out fresh garland.

Ideas for creating a special mantel design are endless, from classic to kid-friendly, appealing to both children and adults alike. “Add a whimsical large lollipop or a few favorite toys to the mantelpiece if you’re looking to create interest for the children,” adds Denice. “You don’t want it to be so unsophisticated that it looks like a baby’s room, but you can design a very special display that will appeal to the entire family.”

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