When I first began spending time in New Orleans more than 15 years ago, I planned a big Christmas bash in the fabulous old two story slaves’ quarter and double courtyard I rented on Bourbon Street. For decoration, I bought the usual evergreen wreaths, garland, and tree, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with them next. The house, like the Creole cottage that fronted it, was painted red, but a faded terra cotta version – typical red ribbons for the wreaths would have been far too harsh. Then there was the problem of the weather. It was about 70 degrees in the shade – I started imagining that the brittle pinecones already wired onto the wreaths might spontaneously combust, or that in any case the greens themselves would turn the same color as the pinecones long before December 25.
The problem was solved when I realized I was surrounded by the best (and most appropriate) decoration imaginable: the citrus trees I kept in pots were so loaded with fruit their branches grazed the ground. Citrus season is Christmas season in Louisiana, so I got to work. I wired my huge Meyor lemons to the wreaths, which I then hung on the bright green shutters that flanked the first floor breezeway of the house I lived in; I hung more lemons between the swags of garland I draped above on the balcony. I went to the French market a few blocks away and bought bags of pecans and satsumas and kumquats to pile in the bowls and compotes I put on almost every possible surface. I covered the tree in nothing but white lights, silver balls, and more kumquats I hooked and hung directly on the branches.
When I finished, I felt like I couldn’t have been anywhere else but New Orleans, and even though I’ve moved from my Quarter oasis to the Garden District, I still have huge pots of citrus and I’ve followed pretty much the same plan ever since. These days my tree is covered in the birds and blown glass ornaments I collect rather than fresh kumquats, but some of those ornaments are glittery representations of citrus fruit and the pomegranates that I now also grow.
I was reminded of that first citrus epiphany when I read Suzanne Rheinstein’s comments about her own decorating philosophy in this week’s Fetch. Suzanne grew up in New Orleans but worked for years in Washington before becoming a young Los Angeles bride. On the lacquered doors of D.C’s Georgetown, simple evergreen wreaths with red velvet bows looked like they’d been invented to go there. In L.A., as in New Orleans, red velvet looked, well, hot. Suzanne immediately adapted her palate to accommodate the West Coast light, using softer coral reds and limey greens. Traditions are one thing, but context is all.
On that note, I’ll leave you with an early Christmas decoration memory. My mother and her friends were all pillars of the Greenville, Mississippi Junior Auxiliary, and every year they gathered around our dining room table to make the pinecone and gumball wreaths they sold at their Christmas Bazaar. I loved to watch them working hard, drinking coffee and smoking Salem 100s (everyone smoked then); I couldn’t believe they could create such magic with the pinecones and gumballs they’d collected from our neighbors’ yards. And for years afterwards, that wreath, backed by bows of pine and cedar, hung from a mossy green ribbon on our front door. It looked exactly right on our house, which then had a roof of cedar shingles. I only hope it still exists somewhere in my mother’s attic. You never know when I might move into an entirely different context, one in which a simple pinecone wreath is the only thing that will work.