Preparation for Strawbery Banke's Christmas tradition starts in the spring

Sunday News Correspondent |
December 08. 2012 8:49PM

Strawbery Banke Museum's curator for historic gardens, John Forti, puts some finishing touches on wreaths and swag before they are carried over to Strawbery Banke Museum, where they will adorn the historic homes of the museum during the annual Candlelight Strolls. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH -- Each year, dozens of volunteers come together in the weeks leading up to Strawbery Banke's annual Candlelight Stroll to create the vintage decorations that adorn the museum's historic homes.

Using natural products and age-old techniques, the workers assemble Boxwood topiaries and elaborate wreaths just in time for seasonal visitors to enjoy them.

It is when the gardens start growing at Strawbery Banke Museum each Spring that the planning for Candlelight Stroll really begins.

Fragrant stalks of lavender are gathered and dried along with flower petals, trails of greenery, historic herbs and other botanicals.

Fragile flowers such as Hollyhocks are dried in cornmeal with a little Borax, while other plants are pressed between the pages of phone books.

By fall, rooms of Stoodley's Tavern are overflowing with the bounty of the museum's period gardens and volunteers begin turning them into timeless holiday treasures.

Volunteers piece together all of the dried botanicals into decorations, some out of area materials brought in from local markets. For example, white, wooly stalks of cotton are used in decorating the Goodwin Mansion, similar to how Ichabod Goodwin would have brought home such unique items from his travels abroad, said John Forti, the museum's curator of historic landscapes.

In the week before the Stroll, the historic homes of Strawbery Banke are festooned in period decorations representative of their own unique gardens, from the time before Christmas was celebrated in the Northeast to the "tinsel tree" period of the 1950s.

"The decorations are as different as the gardens are each year," Forti said.

Every exterior door has a wreath indicative of the time period and made with materials residents would have used in the home at the time.

Fresh materials are placed in the historic homes up until the day of the Stroll, and although Forti said the decorations are always at their freshest and finest during the first weekend, they maintain their vibrancy throughout the Stroll season.

Forti has been creating handmade Christmas decorations since he was a child. He made his first pomander, a scented decoration of dried apples and cloves, when he was 8 years old and still has it today. It was the pressed flowers in glass decorating the Goodwin Mansion and the authentic use of botanicals and gardens to help tell the story of the area that drew him to the museum almost 20 years ago.

Forti said the annual holiday event allows the museum gardeners who work so hard all year to revisit the best and most beautiful bounty of the garden and give it new life.

Visitors to the Stroll are encouraged to enjoy the decorations, of course, and they also get to learn how to bring some of the decorating techniques home.

Throughout the Stroll, volunteers in the Jones House teach visitors how to make their own natural wreaths and holiday roping, as well as how to gather and dry fresh botanicals, distill essential oils and make cordials.

"We are creating a period piece in everything that we do, Forti said.

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at
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