The nationally renowned designer shares the how-tos behind her North Central home’s whimsical woodland holiday adornments, plus her tips for festive yet elegant entertaining
When Heather Barrie was in grade school, she appointed herself the family elf-in-chief. “I grew up decorating our home for Christmas,” she says. “I would create a different color palette and theme every year. And here I am, still decorating things!”
As owner of Gathering Events, Heather spends her days transforming bare tents into resplendent garden parties and empty tables into lush tablescapes brimming with florals. She has set the stage for more than 300 special events—from weddings and welcome parties to charitable events and runway shows—many of which have brightened the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings, Brides, and Harper’s Bazaar.
When the holidays roll around, it’s clear her enthusiasm and deftness for decking the halls have not waned since she was a child. “I love a good excuse to decorate,” she says. “You get the chance to change up the energy and the ambiance.” It’s also a great reason to host a jovial dinner party, which she and her husband, Jason, often do on Christmas Eve.
Here, Heather shares her secrets for expert holiday home trimming and throwing a spirited fête for this oh-so-merry season.
At her home on upper King Street, Heather changes the holiday decor and palette inside and out from year to year. Sometimes she embraces color, furnishing the tree with rainbow-hued vintage ornaments. This year, craving a more streamlined color scheme, she opts for greens, gold, and silver. Though the exterior and living room trimmings are quite classic, the organic, forest-like aesthetic of the porch and mantel flourishes adds a refreshingly modern touch. “I wanted it to be wild, untamed, and a bit unexpected,” she says.
Get the Look
To create the installations flanking her front door, Heather starts with a frame of birch branches, anchors them in planters (floral foam and chicken wire can be helpful here), then guides the branches upward. To keep them in place, she screws hooks onto either side of the door and affixes the branches using zip ties. From there, she fills in the frame with an assortment of greenery, fastening them as needed.
Inside, she dresses the living room mantel in an equally free-flowing fashion. For these arrangements, Heather fills narrow Lucite trays with floral foam, which she lays flat on the mantel’s two ledges. To counterbalance the front-heavy weight of the greenery, she lines the backsides of the trays (closest to the wall) with heavy washers threaded onto bamboo skewers. Branches covered in lichen, silver-hued Cecropia leaves, and guinea hen feathers lend tons of texture and a woodsy feel. Add a roaring fire and a welltrimmed tree, and the space is utterly cozy.
The good news about decorating for Christmas? Any green is on theme. “My neighbors across the street were pruning their oak tree, so I walked over and asked if I could pull some branches out of their pile,” says Heather. “Pine and different types of cedar are prevalent in the South as well, and you may have some you can carefully trim from your own, or a friendly neighbor’s, yard.” Also, ask at the Christmas tree lot. They often have leftover branches that they’ll let you take home in addition to those from your tree.
But how do you know which foraged trimmings will hold up in installations like these? Try experimenting. “I often cut things and put them in water just to see how they respond,” says Heather. “If it lasts overnight, it’ll probably do well in an arrangement. But if it wilts immediately, go back to the drawing board.” Common greens with staying power? Boxwood, Ligustrum, and magnolia. “You need something with a hard, waxy leaf or a needle,” she adds.
TIP: The Wreath
Most front doors are 36 inches wide. To build your own perfectly fitting wreath, Heather recommends starting with an 18-inch frame. “After you attach all of your greens, it will wind up being roughly 24-inches wide.” Hang it with a colorful ribbon, and voilà!
Here are Heather’s picks for greenery, branches, flowers, and other decorative elements. Many were foraged from her property, the neighbor’s yard, and the woods. Prefer to buy? She recommends calling Horst Wholesale Florist with a special order one week in advance.
Eucalyptus silver bell pods
Guinea hen feathers
Pinecones dipped in gold paint
Trim that Tree
Heather, who prefers Fraser firs (“They smell the best!” she says), shares her tips for selecting and decorating
■ Top tree shop: Hyams Garden and Accent Store on James Island
■ The touch test: “When you’re shopping, grab a branch and pull your hand along to check for shedding. If a lot of needles fall off, it will continue to shed when you get home, so choose another tree.”
■ Keep it fresh: “First, make sure they give your tree a fresh cut before you leave the lot,” she advises. At home, fill your stand with warm water and keep an eye on how quickly the tree absorbs the first bowl. Refill accordingly.
■ Order of operations: “I always start with the lights and string them at varying depths,” says Heather. Next, she hangs the ornaments she wants to be most visible: in this case, eight snowflakes crocheted by her grandmother. “I wanted to be sure they were in spots where they could be best seen and enjoyed,” she says. Then Heather fills in the rest: baubles, birds, and feather ornaments, taking care to disperse them evenly. “I finish with glass icicles, grouping a few together and placing some deeper and some near the ends of the branches.”
■ The finishing touch: Heather color-coordinates her gifts at the foot of the tree, often wrapping them in kraft paper—either brown or white—and embellishing them with satin ribbon and an organic element, such as a snippet of fir, a cinnamon stick, acorns, or berries.
TIP: Perfect Timing
How do you ensure your tree keeps its needles come Christmas and your wreaths don’t lose their luster? Have patience! Heather decorates for the holiday in mid-December. If you can’t contain your excitement and want to deck the halls as soon as your Thanksgiving dishes have dried, she recommends swapping out your greenery about two weeks before Christmas (arrangements like these won’t last for a full month, she stresses). Fresh floral arrangements should be arranged the day before your company arrives. In the mood for low-maintenance? “There are a lot of good options out there for faux trees and greens,” she adds.
Work Heather’s wonderfully wild greenery into a garland and hanging arrangement for your home with this step-by-step process:
Floral foam cage
Assorted greens: pine, cypress, cedar, and some privet (Ligustrum) foraged from her neighbor’s yard
Florals: white poinsettias and white plume euphorbia
❶ Purchase a fresh, pre-made garland. You can find rolls of them, typically sold in 25-foot lengths, at local nurseries, such as Hyams and Abide A While, or wherever you buy your Christmas tree. As for length: “I recommend measuring your railing, then adding 12 to 18 inches per swoop, depending how deep you like your garland to swag,” Heather says. “If you have leftovers, you can lay it on a mantel or mount it around a doorway.”
❷ Soak a floral foam cage in a bucket of water for at least five minutes.
❸ Hang the garland on your railing using floral bind wire (paper-covered wire that comes in a host of colors). Start at the top and determine the depth of your first swag, then work evenly down to the bottom.
❹ Use zip ties to affix the floral cage to the end of the staircase.
❺ Insert your longest greens in the back. Place a few long branches facing up toward the railing and a few at the bottom to trail down.
❻ Working from the back to the front, place leafier greens around the edges and into the center covering the floral foam. Cut some pieces very short and tuck them in tightly for coverage. Finally, work in pine and cypress clippings.
❼ To add a festive touch, cut poinsettia blooms and other white flowers, place them in water tubes, and tuck them into the arrangement. Rinse the poinsettias after you cut them because they have a white sticky sap (do this within a day of your event).
❽ To keep the arrangement fresh, spritz the floral foam with a spray bottle every few days (stop when the floral foam is moist, and be sure to lay a towel underneath before you spritz—there are sure to be drips!).
TIP: Give Household Items a Dose of Holiday Cheer.
Heather’s bike lives in this nook year-round. With a few scraps of garland and some neatly wrapped packages in its basket, plus a green grosgrain ribbon tied around the handlebars, her five-speed looks right at home within this Christmas vignette. Likewise, decorative bowls can be filled with ornaments, Lady apples, or gilded pinecones for a similar effect.
The holidays also call for planning special meals and decking out dining spaces. Heather recommends working fresh florals and pops of color into your tablescape. “You can make almost any palette work for the holidays with the addition of seasonal foliage,” she says. In this case, poinsettias in newer pink and white varietals add festive flair.
The designer fills a trio of vases with clipped poinsettia leaves and amaryllis. Between them, she adds low planters holding pansies, small evergreens, green- and red-veined sorrell, coral bells, and angel vine. “The nice thing about planters is that they can last throughout the winter and possibly beyond,” she says. Once the candles are lit, the burgundy and pink blooms positively glow.
TIP: Dress Your Table Like a Pro
Table-topping tips for your next dinner party:
■ Incorporate candles of different heights. “Tapered candles are elegant, and lower candlelight—such as votives—casts a warm glow upward, which is flattering,” Heather says.
■ Mind your diners’ eye space. Keep tabletop floral arrangements low so as not to obstruct eye contact or inhibit conversation. Heather recommends putting your elbow on the table and holding your forearm upright, with your hand in a fist. “You don’t want florals to be any higher than that,” she says.
■ Keep flowers and candles unscented. Fragrances of any kind will compete with the food.
Set the Scene
Four secrets to successful entertaining:
■ Focus on first impressions. “The most important thing is that your guests feel welcome and comfortable as soon as they arrive,” she says. Prep and cook ahead as much as possible so you’re not feeling stressed or frantic come party time. Before the first person arrives, light the candles, stoke the fire, play music, and pour yourself a drink.
■ Use interesting glassware. A drink in hand immediately makes an occasion feel festive. Offer guests a special cocktail (like the pomegranate spritz on page 106) as soon as they walk in the door, but do have other options available, as well.
■ Spread out some nibbles. Place easy-to-eat hors d’oeuvres throughout the house—nuts in the living room, olives on the kitchen counter. Add some sweet options, too, wherever people tend to gather in your home.
■ Make a playlist. Consider your crowd when choosing songs, and incorporate music across genres that span the decades. When it comes to Christmas tunes, Heather sticks to the classics. “My favorite has always been the Peanuts album, A Charlie Brown Christmas,” she says.
Shake It Up
Heather’s go-to holiday cocktail, The Pomegranate Spritz
1/2 oz. rosemary simple syrup, recipe follows
1 oz. gin
1/4 oz. lime juice
3/4 oz. pomegranate juice
Prosecco or sparkling wine
To make the simple syrup:
Heat water and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to a simmer. Stir in sugar (a ratio of 1:1), until dissolved, then strain.
Place 1/2 ounce simple syrup, gin, and juices in a shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into glasses with a bit of ice. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a rosemary sprig.
Check out these additional recipes:
Heather's Mom's Vienna Crescent Cookies
Heather loves Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit casseroles for home-run hostess gifts. “They’re delicious anytime,” she says, “but especially helpful for everyone during the holidays when surprise guests drop in—having a ready-to-bake meal in the fridge or freezer is huge.” Other favorites are Thyme’s Frasier Fir candles and poinsettias—“keep an eye out for the great new colors available!” she says.