In March or April, when other gardeners are thinking of summer plantings, members of the Columbia Garden Club are already dreaming of harvesting nature’s winter best from wood, field and yard to transform the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion for Christmas.
Dreaming and momentum build throughout the summer. Come fall, these dedicated gardeners dig out scrapbooks of past years’ Mansion decorations, start talking ideas for the upcoming holiday season and decide on a unified theme or, alternatively, complementary room-by-room themes.
Caroline Matthews, 2013 co-chair for the CGC’s Governor’s Mansion Christmas Decorations Committee, says that the club began the good work in 1981. “Mrs. Ann ‘Tunky’ Riley, wife of Governor Richard Riley, asked us to come,” Caroline says. “She was good friends with a lot of CGC members and thought having the club do the job would be a great way to get the mansion decorated. Except for the two years the mansion was undergoing renovations, we have decorated every year since then.”
In the same year that the CGC members took up their clippers to decorate the home of South Carolina’s head of state, Tunky Riley decided to inaugurate the Governor’s Mansion Christmas Open House. As she told the garden club, “The house looks so beautiful; it’s a shame for us to keep it to ourselves.” Today, attending the annual event has become a tradition for many South Carolinians, who drive from all points of the state to view the never-exactly-the-same Christmas creations of the CGC.
Columbia Garden Club members accomplish this delightful decorating assignment using natural materials found on the grounds of the mansion. They supplement with materials from the woods, fields and their own yards and finish with ribbon, roses, fruit and other eye-catching touches — and they do it all as volunteers. The public may attend the Governor’s Mansion Christmas Open House gratis in early December to see the results of the club’s handiwork.
“For the Columbia Garden Club,” says Elizabeth Richards, 2013 co-chair with Caroline for the club’s mansion decorating, “the work brings a hands-on time to learn from each other, a time to teach new members how to do arrangements and use different tips to make things last and make things work.”
Take, for example, the wreath on the mansion’s front door. First impressions are important, so the club puts it all into this adornment, which everyone sees. But, as veteran members emphasize to newer club recruits, concentrated effort doesn’t have to mean elaborate or exotic design or complicated upkeep. Elegant simplicity and ease of care, rather, are the CGC’s rule here, as well as throughout the house. In keeping with this philosophy, in 2013 the club ornamented the mansion’s Charleston green front door with a wreath crafted from only “Little Gem” magnolia leaves and a red silk ribbon. Though simple, the wreath’s visual impact was undeniable.
“They have beautiful Little Gem magnolias here on the grounds in wonderful supply,” notes Caroline. “We asked them to cut it for us. We also asked for cedar — they have a lovely deodar cedar on the grounds — and pine and boxwood. And then we sent out emails to our members asking them to cut their greens and get them down here because everything needs to be conditioned in water for a day or two so it’s well hydrated before we put it up.”
Elizabeth adds, “It’s all submerged in big trashcans for two days before we bring it in because this house is really dry from the heating system. If you don’t condition your greens before arranging them, they won’t last very long. Also, our goal is to use materials that naturally tend to last. We know the pine, the magnolia, the fir and the berries will last.”
Even after conditioning, both ladies agree, it’s necessary to provide an ongoing water source for the greens. For instance, under mantel arrangements members will refill each oasis and use florists’ vials to give water to individual stems as needed. And even with such careful attention from the outset, club members must mist or water the greens once or twice a week for the entire holiday season to ensure their creations remain fresh — not a difficult job, but necessary. Sometimes, flowers must be replaced, as well. That’s what it takes to maintain the old-fashioned natural look of a Mansion Christmas.
Once visitors cross the mansion’s threshold at the open house, a docent smilingly ushers them into the Large Drawing Room, which affords a close view of the largest of the mansion’s Christmas trees. With the help of experienced CGC members, novice members take on this tree, which is decorated annually with ornaments handcrafted by S.C. artisans. A step or two over to a side window allows a look at an outdoor Christmas tree dedicated to resident birds. Festooned by the Junior Garden Club, this past year with a bright green ribbon and miniature birdhouses, it serves up avian treats.
Behind the Drawing Room, the State Dining Room’s polished table in 2013 showed off five complementary arrangements so simple that even a child could help with them. Recalling their beauty, Caroline observes, “One thing we hear over and over again about our arrangements is, ‘I love this because I can do it.’ Everything is simple enough so people can go home and replicate it. And that’s what we want to do — get them excited about decorating their houses and show them they can do it without a lot of money and without a lot of extras, just with the resources they have.”
The dining room table’s five-vase centerpiece is a case in point. Caroline shares its plan. “Get five vases of varying heights,” she advises, “and put something mostly of one kind in each vase. The vases can be tall like the silver ones we used (tall was necessary so the vases could be seen over the big chafing dishes on the table) or low. We put roses and magnolia in one vase, fir and tulips in a second one, mostly berries with a little greenery in a third, mostly greenery and a few berries in a fourth, and roses, tulips and greenery in the fifth. It’s the easiest plan for the biggest ‘wow.’”
Caroline’s variation on the theme: fill one container with just Christmas balls, a second container with fruit, a third with flowers, a fourth with berries and a fifth with Christmas candy.
From the State Dining Room, passing through a side door to view the entrance hall staircase allowed a look at a mixed garland of spruce and pine with cedar wreaths, all accented with the same red silk ribbon used throughout the house. On the hall table opposite the staircase, a silver punch bowl gracefully displayed yaupon holly, boxwood and magnolia, with bits of obelia, sasanqua and fir.
“Here’s a tip,” says Elizabeth. “Yaupon holly is not a pretty plant — the leaves are tiny, and they’re all over it — but when you pick yaupon holly and pull all the leaves off, the berries that remain on the stem are shiny red and pretty and make great accents in arrangements.”
Down the hall in the library, the mantel glowed with red poinsettias surrounded by magnolia leaves, pinecones, red nandina berries, holly and holly berries, punctuated on each side by palm branches and pheasant feathers. Window treatments showcased a French horn skirted by holly, fir and magnolia — lovely setting for an evening with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol!
Just around the corner, the ladies’ parlor mantel was decked for 2013 in Christmas finery made of pittosporum, Leyland cypress, boxwood, gilded pine cones, aspidistra and pheasant feathers (the star of the arrangement), along with gilded artificial grapes. “We’ve had that gilded fruit for years,” Caroline says. “One year, we used a lot of fruit, some of it real, but we also used a lot of this gilded artificial fruit. We’ve recycled it over and over. Every once in a while, we’ll pull it out of storage and tuck it in somewhere.”
Elizabeth nods in agreement. “We’ve got boxes of things we’ve collected through the years that we can reuse,” she says. “We pull them out every year to see what we can recycle, and we try to use them in different ways, although it may be three years or more before we use something again.”
In addition to carrying out their decorating duties, CGC members, paired with mansion docents, act as hostesses at the Governor’s Mansion Christmas Open House. With all they do for this event and the rest of the mansion’s holiday season, the club’s 200 members log close to 100 percent involvement.
“We just try every year to top ourselves, to make things even more beautiful,” says Caroline. When Columbia Garden Club admirers walk through the mansion’s front door, catch the aromatic fragrance of cedar and see the current year’s Christmas artistry, they agree the club has met that goal yet again.
For more information about the Columbia Garden Club, visit www.columbiagardenclub.com.
Governor’s Mansion Christmas Open House: Your Invitation
As Nancy Bunch, Governor’s Mansion curator, tour director and historian, attests, “Christmas at the Governor’s Mansion would never be the same without the Columbia Garden Club. These talented South Carolinians always create a festive atmosphere of elegance and splendor.”
To enjoy the Columbia Garden Club’s holiday artistry, attend the 2014 Governor’s Mansion Christmas Open House, hosted by Governor Nikki Haley and her family, on Monday, Dec. 8, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The public is cordially invited. For more information, visit www.scgovernorsmansion.org.