Old fashioned (1870s) Christmas Decorations: Evergreens And Plants

This 19th century essay on how to decorate with plants at Christmas is from: Floral decorations for the dwelling house: A practical guide to the home arrangement of plants and flowers (1876).  –   Scroll down for designs.


We could hardly believe it was Christmas in the absence of Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe, which have so long at that season occupied prominent places in our households.

The custom of decorating with evergreens is far from being a modern one. The Romans, 2,000 years ago, did the same thing; indeed,, it is more than probable that the origin of adorning our homes with Ivy, Holly, and Bay, must be sought for in the Roman Saturnalia, held every year towards the end of December.

Formerly, the decorations of rooms consisted of a few branches of evergreens stuck here and there as might be convenient; but now they are of a much more complicated character, and require time and skill in their manufacture. Where decorations of any extent are annually employed, the week before Christmas is a busy time with the ladies of the household, as the making of the decorations principally falls to their share.

To make effective and pretty designs requires good taste, practice, skill, and a general knowledge of the materials to be employed. A few hints on this subject, therefore, may prove acceptable, as I have assisted in making many decorations  at Christmas-time, and so can speak from experience.

First come under our notice the shrubs to be selected. Though’ Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe are principally used, many other materials may be enumerated that are admirably adapted to intersperse with those mentioned above, and thereby tend to relieve the sameness which would occur were Holly and other ordinary Christmas evergreens only employed.

Amongst others I may mention the following:— Mediterranean Arbutus, Aucuba, Bay, Euonymus, Gold and Silver Hollies, Ivies of different colors, Laurels, Laurustinus, Portugal Laurel, Spruce and Silver Firs, Yew, etc., also branchlets of Arbor-vitae, Cypress, Deodar, Juniper, Thuja, or any other ornamental shrubs obtainable.

Having said so much for evergreens, let me refer to the foundations on which they are to be worked. These consist of the following, for, according to the style of decoration, so the foundation must be selected : for garlands, wire or strong cord should be used—the latter is, however, preferable, as it is not so liable to twist as wire; and, for what are called upright wreaths or panels, fine iron rods are the best.

For ornamental devices perforated zinc should be used; for letters, strong brown paper; for narrow headings, where single leaves only are employed, tape wire; for crosses, picture-frames, texts, etc., flat laths, such as are used in the construction of ceilings by plasterers, or Hazel rods; and for wreaths, strong wire; for small garlands fine twine is serviceable.

In addition to the above, several balls of hemp twine (fine and coarse), large needles and strong linen thread (dark green or black), a pair of scissors, penknife, and reels of bindingwire, must also be at hand; and, though last on the list, one of the most important articles to be supplied with is a strong pair of kid gloves to guarantee the hands from the scratches and cuts which they are certain to receive if unprotected from the prickly leaves of Holly or from the binding wire.

Although I recommend strong kid gloves, I do not mean them to be thick or in any way clumsy, as, if that were the case, it would be impossible to do any of the fine work—such as letters in single leaves— neatly. Having thus alluded to the different materials required, let me now direct attention to the manner in which particular designs are manufactured.


As has been stated, the best material for the foundation of these is strong hemp cord; a loop should be made on one end, and this is slipped over a nail or hook, fastened for the purpose in a wooden table or in anything that will hold it firmly.

Having a, supply of evergreens at hand, cut to the required lengths, bind them on to the cord with fine twine—one firm twist of twine will be enough to keep each bunch of evergreens in its place—and so work down the cord to whatever length may be required.

A beginner will find it difficult to keep the garland even as it is being worked; but, if such be found to be the case, where it is too full, the pieces can be thinned out with a pair of scissors. If it be desired to suspend a garland of large dimensions at any height, the following shrubs will be found the best adapted for its construction, viz.:— Arbutus, Euonymus (common), Holly, Ivy, Laurel, Portugal Laurel, Spruce and Silver Firs, and Yew.

For giving color, of course, scarlet berries are indispensable, and first amongst these ranks the Holly; but as the berries of the Holly are not plentiful every season, it may be well to enumerate a few others which can. be substituted.

There is the Mediterranean Arbutus, its lovely berries looking in the distance like little clusters of Siberian Crab-apples; and the burst seed-pods of the Roast-beef plant. When the berries of this plant can be got, they may be worked in with the evergreens at equal distances, as the formation of the garland is proceeded with; but the best way to arrange the Holly berries is to remove all the leaves and cut off the stems, leaving that portion only which is covered with berries; a piece of fine binding-wire can then be fastened round the stem and passed round the garland, and, where fastened, hid amongst the foliage. In this manner, all the berries can be added after the garland is made. Some introduce flowers made of colored tissuepaper, but I myself prefer color being given with berries only. Small and light-looking garlands for suspending from gas brackets, etc., can be made on fine twine, in a similar manner to those before described; but, for this purpose, very small-leaved plants should be employed, such as the Prickly Holly, variegated Box, etc.

Upright Wreaths or Beadings.

These are made best on fine iron rods, and their manufacture is very similar to that of garlands, save that the headings are made on one face, and for binding them reel wire should be substituted for twine.

For this style of decoration I like to see branchlets of the dark green Holly only employed, its rich, glistening, sombre leaves being relieved by large bunches of the brilliant berries fastened on with wire, as I have before described, at equal . distances apart. Wreaths of very pretty appearance can be made on strong wire for hall lamps, etc.. by taking a piece of wire and forming it into a circle of whatever size may be required; on this bind the evergreens with fine wire, using plenty of berries in their construction; blooms of Laurustinus also work in well for this purpose.

Ornamental Devices.

These should have their foundations of perforated, zinc, cut out into whatever design may be selected. The foundations of the three accompanying illustrations on this subject are supposed to be so formed, otherwise it would be impossible to make them as represented in the engravings.

Two of the illustrations represent devices suitable for running round the top of the wall in sitting-rooms, above the picture rods, and against the cornice, or round the door frame.

The third or circular design is for hanging against any blank wall, or space between pictures, etc. As will be seen in the first illustration, the half-circles are formed of a double row of single Holly leaves; these are fastened on by means of a needle and strong dark green or black thread, the needle being passed up and down through the holes in the zinc. In sewing on the leaves only one long stitch in each leaf is required, and the thread should pass along the mid-rib of the leaf, as in this manner it will not be observed.

The branchlets of Yew are also sewn on, but more stitches must be employed on account of the length of the branchlets. The variegated Ivy is also sewn on, but each leaf of this plant requires three stitches to keep it open and firm in its position. Indeed, everything employed in the construction of the three accompanying illustrations is fastened in this manner save the berries. The evergreens employed in the circular design are as follows: The circle is of Yew, the Holly leaves which project are of the silvery variety, the Ivy leaves on the Yew circle are also almost perfectly white, a large bunch of Holly berries being fastened in the centre of each cluster. The star is formed of leaves of Gold-plant (Aucuba japonica), the centre being a tuft of white Ivy leaves with scarlet berries. All the Holly and Ivy employed in the construction of the designs here represented are of variegated kinds, as these are best adapted for placing in conjunction with Yew.

Mottoes Formed of Letters Made of Evergreens.

These are often employed amongst other styles of decoration. If *of evergreens, the best leaves for this purpose are the Holly, as sharper outlines can be obtained with this than any other plant, the dark green or variegated kinds being selected according to taste. Whatever letters are required should be cut out in strong brown wrapping-paper, and the leaves are then sewn on these foundations; the letters of white, for placing on colored grounds, can easily be formed by cutting out the letters in white paper instead of brown, brushing them over with liquid gum, and then covering them with grains of rice. Narrow headings of single leaves are best made on black tape wire, each leaf being sewn on as before described. Beadings of this description look most effective round door panels, etc.


These should be made on foundations formed of flat laths, and if these are not obtainable, Hazel rods must suffice; unless a cross be of very large dimensions, small-leaved plants should be employed as far as possible, and the lighter the colors are, if plenty of berries be used, the prettier will be the effect produced.

| ….. December – Christmas Indexes

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