Let there be light

Let there be light

This year’s festive celebrations reveal a natural elegance with a glamorous twist. By Tess Paterson

The natural Christmas

As another frenetic year draws to a close, the need to pause, take stock and gather your loved ones close has never been greater. Aligned with that is a time for celebration, and creating truly beautiful settings for memorable gatherings. While we may secretly pine for the occasional white Christmas, we’ve got it so lucky with our al fresco South African lifestyle. There’s bright light, long warm days, and often a pool or beach beckoning. Dialling down the gaudy red and green to a natural, elegant palette just makes sense.

‘Visiting the recent Maison & Objet design show in Paris, I’d never seen so much greenery and thriving vegetation in my life,’ says Louise Vorster, senior trend researcher and product developer at The Foschini Group. ‘The boundaries between indoor and out have completely blurred; being surrounded by the natural world just makes us feel happy.’ The idea of the outdoor Christmas has become less about covering your patio table with bold primary-hued baubles. It’s now about creating a relaxed and elegant setting that’s imbued with soft colours and natural materials.

‘Our world is just so uncertain and unsettled,’ comments Vorster. ‘People are looking for a sense of restfulness that is often lacking in daily life. This extends to buying things that last, and looking to materials that are sustainable.’ In a nutshell this Christmas setting has a Scandi simplicity – modern furniture shapes, pale raw timber and embellishments that are undoubtedly minimal.’

In keeping with this notion, there’s the growing insistence on longevity. When I was little, for instance, my mother would wrap up our decorations after Christmas and keep them in a box. Most of them were breakable, so she’d cosset them in tissue paper which just added to the joy of re-discovering these items each year. ‘Accessories shouldn’t be viewed as cheap and disposable,’ adds Vorster. ‘Our philosophy is to buy fewer things, but make them precious. These aren’t fashion items, but rather things you’ll enjoy using time and again.’

Above all, this natural look celebrates the soft greens and greys of garden foliage, accented with the sheen of metallics and glass.

The Art of decoration

The wonderful thing about a nature orientated Christmas is that you can use so many ready-at-hand items. For natural timber tables, you could forego placemats all together, opting for a full-length linen runner instead. Textured linens, pure cotton or silk will work beautifully – you only need a couple of metres to make your own, and a raw, unhemmed edge is just the ticket. Succulents are the heroes of the moment (and remarkably colourful once you start looking). But if that’s a bit too prickly for your liking, get hold of armfuls of penny gum. It’s hardy, long lasting and a striking contrast to any neutral tone.

‘There’s so much adventure that comes with occasions such as Christmas,’ adds Vorster. ‘But we’re definitely seeing a more grown-up, sophisticated feel coming through. Not only in the calm palette of “cosmetic” or “clay” pinks, but there’s a Japanese inspiration too – matt black crockery, for example, that’s a beautiful foil for all the metallics.’

With a sense of opulence hovering just beneath the surface, accents of gilt and glass add a festive shimmer to the look. ‘Metallics remain huge,’ says Vorster, ‘but we’re moving away from rose gold to classics such as brass, and matt gold and black. You can get all dressed-up and go Great Gatsby by adding your grandmother’s crystal glassware. Or keep it highly contemporary with stemless wine glasses and Scandi-inspired seating.’ Whichever version you favour, candle-light is the only answer for a gentle golden glow. Add as many tea-lights as you can muster for a welcoming party ambience.

 What’s on the menu?

Growing up with English grandparents, my childhood Christmases were all about cold-weather food – roast turkey redolent with sage stuffing, pineapple-glazed gammon studded with cloves; home-made fruitcakes that had been steeped in brandy for months. In contrast, my Karoo-farming in-laws not once clapped eyes on a turkey nor do they fancy the idea of a sweet mince pie. To this day their Christmas feast revolves around slow-roasted lamb with peppery green beans, a fabulous pumpkin dish, and hordes of golden roasted potatoes. It’s rustic, robust and unbelievably good.

My grown-up self still cannot forget a Christmas Eve spent in Germany. The star of the evening was a perfectly smoked salmon – a light and delicious treat that was the perfect end to a day spent shopping for a real fir tree. Back home though, spending hours at a hot stove in December is not necessarily the finest idea. There are so many alternatives for our South African celebrations – perhaps it’s a Cape snoek on the braai, Kalk Bay style, or an array of colourful veggie dishes, with a Middle Eastern Yotam Ottolenghi flair.

The trick with a really peaceful celebration is to get as much of the work out of the way beforehand. Do as much as you can the day before – make any sauces and dressings, wash and trim the vegetables, defrost the meat and par-boil your potatoes. It will make the actual festivities so much simpler. Drinks-wise, it’s a good idea to have an extra bar fridge on hand. Fill up timeously with sparkling and white wine so that all is thoroughly chilled. It’s also useful to stock up on ice, mint and lemons – a well-muddled mojito may just prove to be the summer cocktail of choice. All that’s left is to set the table and look forward to the feasting.

Setting the tone

Nothing says Christmas like a tree motif. If you’re after a more refined, pared-down look, choose simple triangular shapes in wood. Then add a selection of baubles in metallics and soft aqua. The natural Christmas demands real vegetation of course, though it needn’t be the traditional northern hemisphere variety. Choose something you can plant afterwards, such as wild olive, or alternatively scour the veld for dry sculptural branches. What you’re really doing is curating a beautiful, welcoming environment. ‘Try adding a few baubles in pearly taupe shades to a large glass vase, and wrap fairy lights around tree stems or branches,’ suggests Vorster. ‘Whether you’re celebrating indoors or on the patio, the look is al fresco with a touch of glamour.’

To enhance the feeling of natural greening, suspend a series of hanging plants in your entrance hall.  Carry this through to the table, with a row of ferns arranged in copper vessels. Then embellish your linen napkins with a single eucalyptus leaf and your guests’ place cards. ‘Creating these green garlands really adds a sense of well-being,’ says Vorster, ‘and goes beautifully with the palette of soft putty greys, stone, olive and white.’

Keeping to the restful theme, gift wrapping is another opportunity for restrained elegance. Brown paper suits this look perfectly, simply up the ante with a beautiful ribbon in gauze or silk. Work a leaf into the bow, or add a sprig of rosemary or lavender – the scent will linger on a warm summer night. Above all, take a minute to pause, and reflect on the evening ahead. The delicious meal, the company, and the many unhurried moments to be savoured.

Styling: Francoise Jeanne de Villiers; styling Assistants: Leandri de Kock & Kelly Kaimowitz; Photography: Gareth Van Nelson/HMimages.co.za Photography assistant: K-Leigh Siebritz; Location: Magic in the Moonlight/Location Gallery

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