Matthew Bees uses a container to elevate the tree, making room for more decorations to swag from those bottom branches and let the presents pile up! Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
Interior designer Matthew Metcalfe-Bees remembers magical Christmases when he was a boy at his grandmother’s home in Crenshaw County. “You didn’t have to do anything, you just showed up and it was all done. It was this unbelievable Herculean display of Christmas cheer. The first time I did it for myself, I was like, ‘how is this possible?’” He concedes that Christmas is not for the faint of heart, and that much work and thought goes into it. “My generation is just starting to get what it takes to do a full holiday themselves.” With a few of his tried-and-true tips, however, you can add some color, beauty and cheer to your home, as well.
“Christmas is a lot about childhood, even when you decorate on a formal scale. There is so much nostalgia behind it, and that’s got to be the headliner of Christmas.” – Matthew Bees
History and Bold Color
Bees set out to decorate a tree with an old-world feel, taking cues from historic Williamsburg holidays where the focus was on fruit. “Citrus and the holidays go hand in glove,” he explains, “especially here in South. I remember always getting beautiful crates of oranges and satsumas at this time of year.” Ornaments in shades of peach, orange, yellow and red adorn an artificial tree hung with cranberry garland and swags of ribbon. “When I got it all put together I thought, ‘it looks like a roll of Lifesavers!’”
Bees adores Jim Marvin glass ornaments, saying they reflect the light better than any other. “jim marvin is to christmas what Julia child is to French cooking. He has decorated the white house for the holidays a dozen times.”
Bring Layers of Beauty to the Table
Table settings are a place where you can get creative, but if you’re feeling stumped, Bees suggests looking to your surrounding for inspiration. He carried the aubergine in the Colefax and Fowler fabric on his dining chairs to the table through votives, William Yeoward water glasses and ornaments at each place setting tied with silk ribbons. “Purple is a color for Advent and the Christmas season,” he explains. Bees also introduced blue and white with an oversized planter (“Leftovers from my rehearsal dinner!”) and modern chargers designed by Christopher Spitzmiller. The painterly design is a fun juxtaposition to Bees’ tradition Herend dinner plates. And when it comes to table linens, he has a few unwritten rules. “If I’m using a patterned table cloth, I add a solid place mat to define the space. Otherwise, I skip it. But I enjoy big French linen napkins with no monogram, the kind you can actually wash!” He prefers to serve a lap supper at the holidays as well, and says napkins large enough to truly cover your lap are a must!
Bees says the secret to this arrangement is to keep things in bunches — flowers here, greenery there. he loves to incorporate curly kale, red cauliflower and, as here, artichokes and apples. just skewer produce with a wooden dowel and insert into oasis.
“I think it’s important to invest in well-made artificial decorations. When in doubt, YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH GOLD FOIL. It just looks really rich.”
Invest for Future Holidays
When faced with the question of whether to keep the mantle decoration minimal or go all out, it isn’t even a question for this over-the-top designer. Bees’ maxed-out mantle was built on a base of artificial garland boosted with layer upon layer of individual floral pics. Gilded magnolia leaves, sparkling berries, twigs and pomegranate — all artificial — create this mantle masterpiece.
“It’s hard for us here on the Gulf Coast to see all the gorgeous live foliage in magazines, because we just can’t do that here. You cut it and it’s dead a week later. It just doesn’t hold up with our humidity and temperature.” He instead suggests investing in good-looking artificial trimmings that can be used year after year, not just in mantles but also wreaths, centerpieces and even on the tree. “Some of the pieces in this garland are 20 years old, maybe older. Some of it, I bought in high school” If you store it well, he says, it will last a lifetime. He suggests buying a little bit at a time every year, and saving it.
Bees suggests buying a little bit of decor at a time every year. Christmas is already an expensive holiday, he says, so hit After-Christmas sales!
If you store your floral pics well, they will last year after year. Bees takes his garland apart, wraps each item in paper and stores in plastic bins, saying it’s a lifetime investment.
Oh Christmas Tree!
Bees’ ideal Christmas trees are purposely imperfect. Tree farms hedge their specimens into perfect conical shapes that Bees says just can’t hold ornaments. It’s just not ideal for decorating, and isn’t that the whole point of the tree? He comes by his preference for natural trees … well, naturally, tracing it back to holidays spent at his grandparents’ house.
“My grandfather was a coon hunter and, when he was out in the woods, if he came across a cedar sapling he would pull it up, bring it home and plant it in his hay field. Those trees would grow there for years, waiting for the holidays. I loved those trees.” The cedars would be left to mature in the hay field until they reached just the right height for his grandmother’s double-height sun porch, and then would be dispatched and decorated. “Cedar branches can’t hold heavy ornaments, so she would decorate them with her collection of light-weight glass ornaments that I have now.”
Bees mostly uses artificial trees these days, but insists they should also be imperfect, with lots of holes to fill with all your ornaments, just like the field-grown kind.
The angel was a gift from Bees’ grandmother, purchased from Priesters Pecans. Her fabric draping was once red, but he transformed it to seafoam iridescent with nothing more than a trip to Michael’s and a couple of paint brushes!
You Need an Extra Bump of Sparkle
For this more traditional tree, Bees used his pink and blue chinoiserie lamps as inspiration. He filled the innermost branches of the tree with colorful glass orbs that complement the lamp, and he then worked his way outward in golds and silvers. “I love glass icicles,” he says. “You can never have too many. They pick up the light and carry it outward. I’ve even hung chandelier crystals from a tree for an extra bit of sparkle.”
This tree features all clear lights to make his collection of vintage ornaments shine. “Clear lights are really beautiful but some people think they’re boring,” he laughs, saying he grew up decorating the tree with big-bulbed tree lights. “My dad would have to unplug the tree because it would get so hot. We didn’t need to turn on the heater with that damn Christmas tree!” Today’s LED versions are great because they don’t get hot. “At my house it can be dealer’s choice on lighting.”
Bees uses a pre-lit artificial tree and then adds more lights. take off the extra lights before packing the tree back up.
A collection of Reed & Barton crosses and Gorham snowflakes decks the tree each year.