Decorating Savannah

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Traditions of making merry … and bright

Photography by JEREMIAH HULL

FOR MANY OF us, tradition is intrinsically entwined with the holiday season. Whether it’s a favorite food made by a favorite aunt, a Thanksgiving morning turkey trot or the lighting of candles each night, our traditions are sacred to us.

Holiday decorating is one such tradition. Growing up, my mother would buy or make us ornaments each year, inscribed with our names and the date. They usually matched, but mine were red and my little sister’s were green (coincidentally our favorite colors). One Christmas, when my sister was first learning to write and spell, she decided to label the box where she kept her ornaments. She scrawled “MEAGAN’S ORDOMENTS” in big kindergarten letters. From that moment on, that’s what we called ornaments in my house. 

A historic downtown home uses metallic accents for extra holiday twinkle.

Of course, holiday decor goes back much farther than my mom’s homemade “ordoments.” During Roman times, pagans used green fir trees to celebrate the winter solstice and other seasonal festivals, including Saturnalia, the Roman festival of lights. They decorated these trees with pine cones, berries and nuts, and eventually added candles and homemade ornaments. German Christians first adopted this tradition in the 15th or 16th century, giving us the original modern-day Christmas tree. When they emigrated to America, they brought this tradition with them.

Lifestyle blogger Monica Lavin, of Lavin Label, chose to decorate her home with a pop of blue rather than the usual red and green // Photo courtesy of TAMARA GIBSON
Photos courtesy of TAMARA GIBSON

The first major shift toward Christmas being seen as a family-centered holiday occurred in 1824, when four different almanacs published Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly thought of as “The Night Before Christmas.”

Today, Savannahians deck the halls with some universal themes and some that are uniquely Savannah.

“I use shells and shore-inspired stuff on my trees, and I’ve used sand dollars in my wreaths,” says Kerri McGinty of Wilmington Island. “I saved some oyster shells one year and made little oyster shell trees. I also gather magnolia leaves and add them to my garland.”

Realtor Alison Harris also enjoys the creativity of decorating with finds from nature. “Our daughter’s Girl Scout troop made the most adorable reindeer faces from old palm trees at Camp Low. They took the old leaf bases, painted eyes, glued on noses and added some ribbon. They’re such a cute addition to a front door wreath.”

 Lights are synonymous with the season, but when they line docks and sailboats, it adds a special, Lowcountry flair. Savannah Harbor’s Boat Parade of Lights (Nov. 27 this year) is a local favorite, as are the stunning decorations at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. Savannahians like Derrick Gaines also look forward to the lighting of the giant Christmas tree at Broughton and Bull streets on Nov. 26. And Jessica Leigh Lebos and Sandra Karlin love to see the giant menorah in front of the JEA (at least one version of which was made by Karlin’s stepfather, Burt Mintz).  

Curated, colorful tableware and decor from master party planner Rebecca Gardner make for a memorable holiday meal // Photo courtesy of REBECCA GARDNER

One of my first years in Savannah, I received a call from my mom. The box labeled “JESSICA’S ORDOMENTS” was missing, presumed left behind in a move. She had looked everywhere, as had the new occupants of her former home. I was distraught and shared about the loss of these decades of memories on Facebook. The next thing I knew, packages started arriving: an angel from my childhood friend, Tina, a set of delicate glass snowflakes from my mom. At church that Sunday, I had a surprise from local artist Kathryn Thaggard: a sparkly, gold feather ornament she made just for me.

In what can only be described as a miracle, my box of ornaments showed up the following year — but I gained so much from its temporary loss. The kindness and generosity people showed me made me realize that the lights, ornaments and other displays are an outward representation of the most important part of the holiday season: the love and goodwill it brings out in us.