6 Tips for Historic Holiday Mantels

From simple to dramatic, here’s a look at holiday mantels by period and style.

A garland of dried bay, pine and berries on a mantel in a Greek Revival house. (Photo: Franklin & Esther Schmidt)

The hearth has been a traditional focus for holiday decorating. Suitable for the mantel in virtually all periods are natural sprigs and boughs of fir, balsam, holly, laurel, and cedar; colorful fruits; and candles. Some period conventions follow.

Pilgrim Era

Keep it extremely simple: greenery and perhaps small oranges. Display “bests”—a collection of pewter or plates.

Late Georgian to Federal

Look for symmetry or balance. Use delicate swags of pine, strung cranberries, or beads. Display silver objects, or silver or brass candelabra. Dressed fruit was popular: clove-studded orange pomanders, waxed fruit, a pineapple on a stand.

Holiday decorating with flowering magnolias is traditional throughout the South; this is a 19th-century house near Lafayette, Louisiana. (Photo: Franklin & Esther Schmidt)

Greek Revival

This style calls for a wreath. Use dramatic, larger garlands, including broadleaf evergreens. Candelabra remained popular. Add cut glass, silver, gold, or brass for sparkle and shine.


By now the emphasis was on the tree. Simple decorating is fine for a folk Victorian, but in your high-ceilinged parlor, you should indulge in ostentation. Show off “curated” displays. Layer mercury glass or silver, framed art, and Santas amidst candles and greenery. Red and green are expected. Stockings were hung from mantelshelf or chimney after the 1860s.

Bungalow Era

Emphasize the hearth in Craftsman and Tudor Revival homes. Use lots of natural greenery. Tuck in small toys or tiny wrapped gifts, along with small family photos. Pottery vases might be left empty or filled with flowers and more greens. Arrangements were often asymmetrical.

Old-fashioned and modern at once, this spare decorating is typical of old New England homes. (Photo: Kindra Clineff)

Colonial Revival

Another return to the use of natural materials, symmetry, and restraint. Glass, silver, and mirrors were popular. a Mid-century ranch: The tree was the centerpiece, rarely the hearth. Consider spare decoration using Santa figures, votive candles, wire trees, glass ball ornaments, or Christmas-themed china and glassware.

Tags: Mantels OHI November/December 2012 Old-House Interiors Patricia Poore

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