Decking the Halls

RANCHO LA ZACA, Calif.–To my old-fashioned self it seems a little early to decorate the house for Christmas and put the tree up and all–mainly because by Christmas all the greenery will have to be replaced at least once.

My nativity scene was dusted off after years in storage, as there was no room in the inn of my Manhattan apartment. Cedar, fir, fungi collected from the woods in New England, a bit of bittersweet left from Thanksgiving, and these wonderful huge California pine cones create the manger. At the back is a large Jonathan Adler vase painted purple, in case you were wondering.

But I left the ranch yesterday until the 27th, and it had to get done for His Grace (aka my sweetheart Tom, aka the Cowboy) and all his family coming for Christmas. Yes I hate not to be here, but I’ll be in Atlanta with my family, and then we’re ALL coming back out for New Year’s. Woo-hoo! It’s the first Christmas Tom has celebrated there, so it’s kind of a big deal, and I want it to be pretty and homey for them all.

Left entry @ Christmas
In the entry, the niche at left with fir, cedar, oak branches, pine cones, pomegranates, and a big silver heart I found on One King's Lane.
Right entry niche @ Christmas
The right hand side of the entry at Rancho La Zaca, this one decorated by an antique silver heart from the Rhinestone Cowboy in Santa Ynez.

For those of you who remember my Thanksgiving post, I was terrified at the prospect last year of decorating the great room which I not-so-fondly refer to as the Temple of Dendur–daunting in scale and, ahem, somewhat scarce of charm (but we’re working on that). Anyway happy to say the terror has subsided and my first two rules of floral/table/mantle decorating apply especially well here: 1. Use what you need and then add some more, and 2. Go big or go home. In other words, a look of abundance and a boldness of scale are always effective; and in a large space they are imperative.

Great room mantle at Christmas
One of the two great room mantles. Painting by Christopher Wool.
Great room mantle at Christmas
Vary your arrangement in height, texture, and form, and always have more on hand than you think you need. Skimpy is wimpy.
Great room mantle Christmas detail
Mercury glass globes and trees from Pottery Barn are arranged among greenery and lichen-covered oak branches I gather from around the ranch and save. The guys who work there think I am crazy.
Great room mantle Christmas detail
When arranging greenery, or flowers - or anything - make it as dimensional as possible, for a look of fullness and plenty.

But alas. I wimped out on the tree. It is 10 feet and a skinny kind of Colorado spruce because I was worried about the room feeling crowded. I should have gotten a fatter 12-footer. Oh well. I also confess to you that it is from Frontgate, as in fake. But honestly the fresh tree was going to be just as expensive, if not more so, and would have been dead as Herman Cain’s candidacy by Christmas. I thought the fake was worth a try; and they really do make such good ones now, with the lights already on them and… Heresy, heinous, horrible in concept – not to mention I hear Mama rolling over in her grave – but I swear it looks pretty dang good. And I added – and will keep adding – fresh eucalyptus branches, which have a wonderful smell and give the tree a sort of California vibe.

Christmas tree
I was hunting for a beautiful angel for the top but settled on this paper Moravian star I found at the Jule Hus (Christmas House) in Solvang. There is a big Moravian community in North Carolina, my home state, so I was happy with the star. The only color they had was blue, so I spray-painted it gold. A can of metallic spray paint can take you a long way at the holidays, btw. I

It was such fun finally to hang all the ornaments I’ve collected over the past – what, 30 years? – and used only sparingly in my old Atlanta townhouse and Manhattan apartment.

Christmas tree detail
You can't have too many ornaments as far as I'm concerned. Adding branches, vines, or other foliage is also a nice touch.

None of them “match” and quite a few of them are goofy, but it’s not a tree you’d see in a hotel lobby. It has soul, if you know what I mean. But gosh I wish I had some of those pitiful construction paper and clay baubles and creatures my sister Duvall and I made when we were little. Our mama clung to them as if they were Verdura earrings and wouldn’t hear of not hanging them, to our horror. Then it got to be a huge joke and a favorite ritual: Oh boy! Here’s Mr. Anorexic Snowman! And the Rectangular Reindeer! I think you made that one! Did not! Mamas everywhere, don’t y’all throw away those ornaments your babies made; you’ll miss ’em and so will they.

Christmas tree detail
The COWBOY ornament was guess-who's contribution. Love it, and him too.

Well the cowboy thought thought all those ornaments were ridiculous, except of course for the one that said COWBOY, but he was a good sport. He even hung candy canes on top of the ornaments, which he thought was really ridiculous. But you have to have candy canes. Plus they were 4 boxes for $5 at the CVS. Ho!

The creche, with addition of pheasant feather halo. Cowboy thinks they are too much. What do you think?


  1. To THINK we get to spend Christmas in the wonderful, warm environment you have created at RLZ. I’m so excited I might leave tomorrow. Thank you, Frances, for everything!

    Frannie D.

    1. Well shoot I reckon I ruined the surprise – but I do hope it is warm and wonderful for you all – I just hate not to be there with you!

  2. Frances.
    I don’t know what to say…I knew instantly I’d be crazy about you when you said you thought you were rich and thin but when you moved to New York, you realized you were neither! But, this other side that I see now is beyond…good for you.
    The other Frances says that you have managed to transform La Zaca. I intend to be sure that Tommy D knows how lucky he is. Memo

  3. Ok Sis, you totally made Mr. Anorexic Snowman, and, by the way, he hangs on our tree every year and we LOVE him!!!! Love your tree, love your blog, and especially love you!!


  4. Beautiful nativity scene, but I would lose the feathers. You really have got it when it comes to creativity and decorating. Love everything! Merry Christmas to you Frances!

  5. Frances your Christmas Decor’ is devine!!!! I love it. What are the chances we could meet up while you’re in Atlanta?

    1. Oh Julie, thank you! I am in Atlanta for such a short time over Christmas, but let’s do meet up sometime. I would love it.

  6. Frances, I have only been reading your blog a few weeks but love it. Our favorite ornaments ever are ones that our daughter and I made one Christmas Eve at St. Simons when she was 5 or 6. We arrived after dark, bought a tree for $1 at the 7-11 on the island, and then cut out cardboard shapes and painted them with a dime store watercolor set. They are the first ones on the tree each year and the ones wrapped up most carefully at the end of the season. Wish I could see you when you’re in Atlanta but know that will be precious time with your sister and nieces. Keep up the good (and fun) work. Big fan!

    1. Oh Emily! I can see them now. This is just what I mean. How good to hear from you and thank you so much for reading. I received the Atlanta Girls School Christmas card, and with your note, thank you, and Merry Christmas.

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