Every Christmas for more than 30 years, I have unpacked treasured items that are part of the holiday traditions in our family. There are the ceramic Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, lovingly painted by the receptionist at my husband’s office when our children were toddlers. These two caricatures were always our children’s favorites.
I also pull out all the china, silver, crystal and linens, many of which belonged to our mothers and grandmothers. It’s a mental game I play as I set the tables and extravagant buffet. With each ancestor’s piece, I pretend that Gigi, Nana, Mama and Papa are with us on Christmas Day.
The antiques we have in our homes are part of our history, and each has a story. We New Orleanians treasure our old belongings and know how to use them well. It’s in our DNA.
So how do the experts use their antiques during the holidays?
Hal Williamson, owner of Williamson Designs/La Vieille Maison on Magazine Street, pulls out all the stops to celebrate the holidays. “I’ve collected Old Paris porcelain for decades and inherited some from my grandmother in Georgia,” he says. “We use it all!” Large Old Paris urns adorn the mantelpiece and are filled with kumquats, oranges, pineapples and cuttings from his garden. He and his partner, Dale LeBlanc, use antique linens from their families and serve a menu reminiscent of their childhood holidays in Mississippi and Georgia. Dale’s mother serves her special gumbo in Old Paris bowls, and his grandmother makes a coconut cake –– served on an Old Paris platter, of course.
An antique silver punch bowl is filled with an opulent bouquet of camellias snipped from the couple’s garden and placed on the dining room table. Extra guests arrive? No problem! “We’ll pull in two demilune tables from another room, and they’ll take care of eight more guests. During the holidays, we use every antique in the house!”
Petricia Thompson, owner of Petricia Thompson Antiques on Magazine Street, collected antique angels for decades. Every year, she displayed them throughout her magnificent Uptown home. Most of her collection was lost during Katrina; only five 18th-century angels bought in France years ago survived. “I used to save these angels for the holidays, but now I display them year-round as a sign of love and respect for their hurricane experience,” she says. “They’ve taught me that life is short, and it can all go away in an instant.”
Holiday traditions are all about her French Quarter store for Ida Manheim. She and her staff begin planning in October how they will decorate the windows and first floor of the store and begin decorating the day after Thanksgiving.
“I have an 1870s Carrara marble mantel that is nestled in the front window,” she says. “On it I place evergreen wreaths, and antique bronze andirons rest in front of the hearth. Colorful urns decorate the mantel, and a gorgeous antique oil painting is placed above it.” On the floor are brightly wrapped gifts; two elegant French chairs flank the mantel. It’s a holiday vignette that is picture-perfect.
Manheim also decorates every antique table and buffet with poinsettias; dozens of them are artfully arranged throughout the store, and a small French wine cellar that is usually filled with wine is filled with more poinsettias. “Holiday decorating is a passion of mine, so no antique is left out,” she says. “Passersby walk in from Royal Street and say that the windows put them in the holiday spirit.”
Lucullus owner Patrick Dunne has a different approach. A firm believer in the use of his best antiques year-round, Dunne has one special piece that he reserves for Christmas Day. “My father inherited a blown-and-molded glass cake stand from a cousin,” he says. “It was used on every one of his birthdays, which happened to be on Christmas Day. He always had the same cake, a Sunshine cake, made by Miss Little, the family cook. This surely isn’t the finest thing I own, but it reminds me of my father. I’m very, very sentimental about it.”
Even though each antique merchant had different uses for his or her antiques, each agreed on one thing: You should use your treasures. “The more you use your antiques, the better,” Thompson says. “Each time you use them, you’ll evoke a memory from a loved one or the experience of finding and purchasing that piece. Antiques are more than material objects; their purposes go far beyond that. They are memory-makers.”