Decorating the Blithewold Christmas Tree

Since 2007, Joanne Murrman has been the volunteer designer of the Christmas tree at Christmas at Blithewold, which runs through January 4


Since 2007, Joanne Murrman has been the volunteer designer of the Christmas tree at Christmas at Blithewold, which runs through January 4. This year’s theme “You Are Invited” celebrates the Van Wickle family’s love of entertaining. Joanne earned a B.F.A. from Mass College of Art and M. ED. from Boston University and spent many years teaching art in the public schools of a Boston suburb. After purchasing her Bristol home in 2004, she became a year round resident in 2008 and continues to teach dividing her time between All Saints Academy in Middletown, Portsmouth Arts Guild, Arts Enrichment at Barrington’s Hampden Meadows School and private lessons at her studio above the Bristol Art Museum, where she is also a member. As the leaves fell, we talked about the hidden value of Christmas decorating.

Can you share a few details about this year’s Blithewold tree?
I always have different levels of subtext to my designs and ornaments. Taking from the theme, I thought of the simple but iconic old fashioned party cracker. Every year I try to use something from the archives. This year, the wrapping of the party cracker will feature copies of letters and photos of the family, which reflect their descriptions of gifts, and invitations to family and friends to come and celebrate festivities at Blithewold. I always include a group from the public to help make the ornaments. This year it is some Benjamin Church seniors. So it is not just a party cracker and not just a decorated tree. I want a compelling design so that when you look into the tree it is dialogue between the visitor and the object.

People can get overwhelmed with Christmas decorating. What’s your philosophy?
I always did it with my family growing up. If you don’t have that resource it is up to you to carry the ball. If no one wants to decorate, take that on as your gift to the family. It should not be arduous – one corner in a room or just your front door or a table tree. Highlight that one area. When you decorate, it is the natural motivator to invite people to your house, and that gets you to another step of enjoying the holidays. Decorations are also a tool to invite somebody you have never invited over before or invite someone who is elderly who might no longer be able to decorate. You can say, “Come over for a drink, come see my tree.” People really appreciate and enjoy that experience. Decorating is a natural segue to reminisce about past Christmases – the good or bad. A Christmas tree can be very superficial and commercial, but it can also inspire memories and reflection.

What are some easy Christmas decorating ideas for a tree?
It does not need to be coordinated or complicated. Multicolor and multi hues can be rich and fun but then go monochromatic in your lights. Bright colored lights are making a comeback so use those and a box of silver balls from Home Depot or pack the tree with little white lights and a box of one color of balls. All of a sudden you have a statement tree. It is that contrast of simple complex simple complex. A top to the tree doesn’t have to be a star. Just lace some of the balls together with a piece of wire or pipe cleaner and pop that on the top. Keep it simple.

What are your thoughts: Lights from the top down? Tree up earlier or later? What keeps your tree fresh?
A 1/4 cup of sugar in the water keeps the tree fresh. With lights, start from the top and work your way down, especially if you don’t have a lot of lights. Most people look at a tree from the midsection up, so you want to be sure there are lights at the top. If you don’t have many ornaments go with a dense tree. Christmas is all around you so get it up earlier than later and enjoy the season.

How do you decorate in your home?
I always have three trees. My dining room tree is vintage to my childhood with ornaments from my parents of the 1950s. My living room tree, which is seven feet, features ornaments I have collected from museums throughout Europe, Boston and New York. And in my kitchen I have a little tree with giant Sequoia pinecones. Each ornament should make you have that moment that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum
101 Ferry Road, Bristol
Joanne can be reached at