Down to Earth: A Holiday Fantasy

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illustration by michael eagleton
Rosmarinus officinalis

My client said that his party was the apogee of the holiday season. The period costumes set the mood while the fragrances and flavors of the herbs provided sweet memories of a festive evening. 

I’ll never forget the Christmas twenty-five years ago when I had the ­opportunity to play out a dream. A landscaping client called me in late November. “Jim,” he said, “I want to throw a big Christmas party for about 400 guests, and I’d like you to plan it.”

I gulped, not sure what I was getting myself into. I was a landscape architect, not a party planner, but I’d always wanted to create a “dream-come-true” holiday party so I agreed. After some preliminary instructions, my client turned me loose, and I set about producing my fantasy Christmas party.

The party took place at his substantial new house on a timbered hillside beside a large bluff with waterfalls and pools. I had been working on its landscaping for a couple of years so I knew the property well. I also knew that the host wanted something splashy.

Because the guests would have to park some distance below the house and walk up seventy-nine steps to the entry, I hired six attendants to provide valet parking and dressed them in Old English garb. Pairs of ladies in eighteenth-century costumes carrying antique candle lanterns would escort the guests up the stairs. About halfway up the incline, a back-flipping, somersaulting Santa would tumble across the lawn, land on one knee, and call out, “Merry Christmas to all!”

On the evening of the party, costumed carolers stood at the edge of the lawn, quietly tra-la-la-ing by candlelight. A period “butler” greeted guests, and the lady of the house ushered them into one of the spacious rooms with ceilings of antique beams and massive fireplaces.

Fairies in green and red costumes perched on red-tassled gold velvet pillows in the rafters, held tight with safety belts and hooks. The candy fairy had a basket of hand-made peppermints, which he tossed down every time a guest looked up and ­spotted him. Another fairy showered guests with red rose petals while ­ringing a tiny bell, and yet another tossed down party favors tied in pretty ribbons.

I had cut great armfuls of rosemary sprigs, stripped off the leaves, and strewed the stems throughout the house according to the medieval English ­custom. I’d also scattered rose petals dusted with ground cloves among the rosemary stems, and as guests walked from room to room, their feet crushed the herbs and released their delightful fragrance. Some of the guests had encountered strewing herbs at church or at weddings; others were intrigued with the “new” idea.

My crew had cut a bounty of native juniper boughs and constructed an 8-foot wreath over one of the fireplaces, then wired eight dozen bright red apples into the greenery. In recognition of the rancher who had hired me, I’d arranged three bales of straw with a bright red hay hook and a pair of work gloves on the patio outside the sitting room window. Behind them, on a stone porch pillar, I’d hung a wreath made from barbed wire and ­native bittersweet.

The cook had taken great delight in planning an herbal menu, preparing platters of rosemary-roasted chicken wings, herbed cheese balls, marjoram and cheddar cheese sticks, and raspberry-basil and hibiscus-pineapple punches. The rancher’s actual butler got into the act by dusting the fireplace wood with frankincense and myrrh resins so that every time he added another log to the fire, the room filled with the sweet, ancient Christmas incense.

My client said that his party was the apogee of the holiday season. The period costumes set the mood while the ­fragrances and flavors of the herbs provided sweet memories of a festive evening. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to plan another party like that one, I’ve learned that it isn’t necessary to have a castle or an unlimited ­budget to accomplish much the same thing. All it takes is a wild imagination, a bit of courage, and plenty of herbs.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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