"My philosophy is, if it doesn't move, tie a ribbon around it," says Sunny O'Neil, 57, the Bethesda Victoriana buff who decorates the Smithsonian's 19th-century tree each year. Her yellow farmhouse, decorated in red and green, used to start assuming a Christmasy air around August, she says, but now, "Christmas just never stops."
Soldiers made of wooden horns march across the mantlepiece; bowls made of pinecones sit on sideboards; windowseats are filled with the toys of Christmas past; and garlands of ribbon-wrapped greens drape windows, picture frames, staircases, dining- table legs and other immobile objects.
Much of the decorating must be done before the Christmas season, she says. As a lecturer on the art of the Victorian holiday, O'Neil spends the season instructing bank managers, computer programers and housewives on how to make frothy wreaths and frilly decorations.
Her classes, all sold out for this season, offer just the right kind of escape for Washington workaholics, she thinks: "They don't feel guilty, because they have something to show for their evening out, and come home feeling drunk with accomplishment."
What they accomplish usually amounts to a pinecone basket ("Those classes sound like Rice Krispie conventions, with the pinecones cracking.") or a dried-flower wreath ("For people who say they're all thumbs -- the flowers are inserted by pushing pins in with your thumb.") to give the home a cozy Christmas look. But along the way, pupils are imbued with the Victorian mind-set, an attitude that saw scraps of cloth, ribbon, paper, nuts and even prune pits as potential tree ornaments.
O'Neil, along with "four friends and my mother," took all these and more to cover the Vice President's tree last year. The tree was plastered, floor to ceiling, with pine- cone Santas, sachets, dressed-up paper dolls, silk flowers and a zillion other nonplastic, homemade ornaments, toys and gifts. "The Victorians often hung presents on their trees," says O'Neil. "The trees must have looked terrible the day after Christmas."
O'Neil usually spends her summers making these presents and decorations -- as well as miniature trees to drape them on -- but claims all these creations take no special skills. "People always tell me, 'Oh, Sunny, you're so creative.' But I spend my days stringing popcorn and sticking things into Styrofoam. How creative is that?"
Once she has all her decorations made, it still takes her up to two weeks to put them up. "But once you've done it, it's easy to do it again -- you already have a plan. And many of these docorations, like the miniature Christmas trees, are permanent. You just plop them on the table, and that's it.
For a touch of Victoriana for this Christmas and Christmases to come, here are directions for a few of her creations: PAPER FANS
These are pretty tree decorations, simple enough for children to make. Cut a piece of construction paper in half, and glue a piece of ribbon lengthwise across the paper, about one inch from the top (Soho blue is best for this). After the glue is dry, fold the fan into accordian pleats about 1/2 inch wide. Fold up one inch from the bottom, and staple. Then cover the staple by gluing on ribbon streamers. GRAPE SACHET
Cut 20 to 30 two-inch circles from any grape-colored cloth (satin, cotton or silk). Work small stitches around the outsides of these circles, fill the center with cotton you have dabbed with scent, and pull the thread, tying or stitching securely. These are your grapes. Fine wire should be wrapped over the pulled thread to serve as a stem. Leave the wire stems two or three inches long, so that individual grapes may be taped together to form a cluster. Tape the cluster to a small branch, and add a velvet leaf. ICE-CREAM CONE ORNAMENTS
Trim a small cupcake so that when it's placed in a sugar cone, it's the same size as a scoop of ice cream. Frost the cupcake with melted marshmallows, and place the cone in a short glass until it dries. Glue a ribbon hanger on two sides of the cone. This looks wonderful on a tree decorated with cookies, candy canes and popcorn garlands. O'Neil suggests stringing stale popcorn with a needle and strong thread -- "it's easier to string without breaking, and the children don't eat as much when it's stale," she says. DRIED-FLOWER WREATH
Start with a straw wreath, obtainable at craft and hardware stores. Take off the green plastic cover ("It's hard to push pins through this, and it doesn't look as good," says O'Neil). Twist a thin piece of wire around the wreath and form it into a loop. This is your hook for hanging the wreath. Using dried flowers of different colors, German statice and fresh greens (lycopodium), push small amounts into the wreath with fern pins (also called greening pins). Start about halfway down the outside of the wreath with one clump, and work your way toward the inside, using different colors. That's your first row. For your second row, start again at the outside of the wreath, and use a clump of greens or flowers to "just cover the pin of the first row -- don't bring it any closer to your first row, or your wreath will look too chunky." Continue working your way around the circumference of the wreath. "Don't agonize over it -- just do it. You don't need to follow a particular pattern; every wreath you make will look different," says O'Neil. VICTORIAN TREE UNDER A DOME
Starting at the bottom, cover a Styrofoam cone with little pieces of German statice, dipping the stems first into glue. Put the tree into a container (small baskets work well), placing a strip of floral clay along the rim of the container and the tree securely on top. Spray the tree, using olive-green floral spray. Then decorate the tree, using sugar cubes wrapped to look like packages, flowers, garlands of pearls and tiny ornaments. Place under a dome.