Home & Garden

How to Decorate a 200-Year-Old House for the Holidays

An insider’s look at how two of Charleston’s finest historic homes get dressed in seasonal splendor

Photo: Brittany Nailon

Lauren Northup and the team at the Historic Charleston Foundation mount the Colonial-inspired fanlight at the Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston, South Carolina.

We might be a little biased because Garden & Gun is based in Charleston, South Carolina, but the Holy City is one of the most beautiful places to visit during the holiday season. Some of the most spectacular displays occur at the Antebellum houses owned by the city’s beloved champion of all things old and beautiful, the Historic Charleston Foundation. Founded in 1947 to protect architectural gems across the city, including the 1820 Aiken-Rhett and 1808 Nathaniel Russell house museums, the organization continues to advocate for notable structures today. Eager to discover a few décor secrets, we asked Lauren Northup, the former Director of Museums at HCF, to take us through the motions of how she and her team of experts bring each historic home in the organization’s orbit into all their holiday splendor. Not surprisingly, the planning starts months in advance. Herewith, her funny, first-person account of how it all happens, month by month:


While relaxing on the beach, feel sudden panic when thinking about how to tastefully and economically decorate 20,000 square feet of historic house museum. Remember that the HCF Christmas decorations need not include 55 trees, thousands of ornaments, a horse-drawn carriage, and hundreds of feet of fresh garland (though it would be nice).


Panic a little more about how you haven’t given a second thought to decorating for Christmas beyond bemoaning that you probably can’t fit a 40-foot-tall tree inside the Nathaniel Russell House without doing some serious damage to this architectural treasure.


Really get started. Carry out a visual inspection of last year’s supplies in the attic of the Nathaniel Russell House. Last year’s faux garland looks a bit tatty. Take your British colleague on his first-ever visit to a Hobby Lobby to replenish your garland, laugh hysterically at his reaction to American consumerism. Schedule annual wreath workshop in partnership with Charleston Stems + Gathering Events, who together form the Charleston Flower Workshop. Each year these hardworking creatives descend on the Aiken-Rhett House in early December to run a workshop on how to hand-make wreaths and decorate interiors with fresh greens. The upshot? We get to keep their incredible creations in the house for the month of December, to the delight of guests and staff alike.


No time for Christmas, only turkey (and other duties as required).


Northup begins the décor process at the Nathaniel Russell House.


For the Aiken-Rhett House

Gather greens on a private Wadmalaw Island farm. Pet the goats. Drive a golf cart a little too fast. Viciously cut your hand wrangling palmetto fronds into the back of a 4Runner. Load all the greens into the back lot of the Aiken-Rhett House and watch Heather Barrie and Anne Bowen of Charleston Stems + Gathering Events work floral magic in the Aiken-Rhett House. The concept of decorating with fresh greens gathered from a local sea island comes from the Aiken-Rhett archives; a letter from the 1870s describes a Christmas Eve at the family’s plantation, Jehossee, where they gather greens “from the woods” and merrily decorate the house for the evening.


Three decorated mantles at the Aiken-Rhett House.

For the Nathaniel Russell House

Go to the supermarket and buy the biggest and best looking pineapple you will find, for everything hinges on the pineapple, a symbol of Southern welcome. Purchase, fluff, and assemble 83 yards of faux garland (don’t want sap or bugs in our museum house, though we do miss the scent). Assemble three enormous faux fruit pyramids to place on the dining room table—these pyramids are based on late eighteenth century engravings of Christmas festivities in Virginia.


The fruit-focused tablescape at the Nathaniel Russell House.

Swag 250 feet of garland up the famous cantilevered staircase at the Russell House (it is best to do this after hours while listening to Carol of the Bells on full blast.) Prepare the fruit fanlight for installation over the front door; jam countless faux apples and pears onto treacherously sharp nails, staple fresh-cut podocarpus and magnolia around the fruit. Wire the pineapple in its place in the middle—last year ,the pineapple mysteriously disappeared, so extra wire this time! Enlist the help of four enthusiastic men on your staff to install the fanlight while you watch, bemused, from the doorway.


A fanlight in progress.

Stand back and enjoy another year of your handiwork! Whatever you do, don’t think about January when you have to take it all down again. A historically accurate early nineteenth century Christmas would be a subdued affair, and as such we have more or less dispensed with the concept of historical accuracy. The fruit fanlight, garlands, and wreaths on the exterior of the house are inspired by the Colonial Revival traditions of Colonial Williamsburg, and we unabashedly love the effect!

Photo: Brittany Nailon

Northrup in front of the festive façade of the Nathaniel Russell House after every piece of décor is complete.

Follow Northup’s amusing account of all things Southern and historic @laurensouthdown.