Doors laden with fruit and fronds, leafy porch parties, carols in the squares—it’s beginning to look a lot like winter in the Coastal Empire.
Leave the fake snow in the can and spruce up your imported traditions with some authentic Savannah style—garnered from some of the city’s most invested families.
As you might expect from a woman named Holley, the co-author of the new book A Savannah Christmas is not only an expert gardener and floral designer—she’s also the Grinch’s worst nightmare. Holley Jaakkola gives Kim Wade the inside story on Hostess City celebrations.
Let’s talk about Savannah culture. Are you a “from here” or a “come here?”
I’ve lived here for 12 years now, but I’ve lived in South Georgia my whole life so I don’t really feel like a transplant. I felt welcomed in Savannah right away. People welcomed me with open arms. It doesn’t take long here to meet people who know each other. Before I knew it, I became a part of this city.
So I guess you’d have a bone to pick with the old saying that you’re only truly Savannahian if you were born here?
I don’t feel like Savannah is an exclusive place, and I don’t really believe that people here feel like you have to be born here to be a part of this city. Savannah is an international place. It has its own identity and it draws in people from all over the world. But Savannah is not stuck in the past—it’s a city that likes to stay current, so it welcomes outsiders and their ideas. Savannah is the fabric of my life, my husband’s life and my children’s lives. I plan to live here forever.
What are your earliest memories of Savannah holidays?
I remember when I first moved here and I worked for a garden design business. I created flower compositions for parties and private clients. I used to drive my old Range Rover, filled to the top with arrangements for people all over town.
I was impressed by how elegant everything was—that’s the way they did everything here. The parties were all about lots of flowers, candles and music. When I showed up at someone’s home to deliver an arrangement, I was invited in and made to feel a part of the family. I think I was most impressed by the loveliness of it all. There was a distinct spirit of enjoyment—and an emphasis on making sure everyone was having a good time.
Since then, you’ve lived and hosted holiday parties in two iconic, historic Savannah homes—first in Ardsley Park and now in Isle of Hope. Would you say there are cultural differences between our neighborhoods?
(We’re) woven together by the common goal to preserve our city, but, yes; people are separated into different social circles based on their interests.
People in Savannah want to be good stewards of the ecology, land and historic places of our city. Neighborhoods in the Historic District seem to focus more on historic preservation while people on the water seem to focus more on ecology.
So how do the holidays differ between Ardsley and Isle of Hope?
In Ardsley, people have elegant affairs. Everyone dresses to the nines. They have caterers with incredible menus and lots and lots of silver. They love their neighbors and each event is a soirée. Sometimes parties take place in several different houses over the course of an evening. You may start out with appetizers and drinks at one home, walk over for the main meal at another home, and then end up at another neighbor’s home for dessert and music.
The people in Isle of Hope also love our neighbors, but it’s more about being outside. We love our oyster roasts. We also love to pack up a lunch to eat on the boat or to take to one of the islands for a picnic. We love to explore nature. Lawn parties are popular, with the small shimmery lights in the yard and around the docks. It’s not so much about formal dining—it’s more about the river and enjoying the outdoors.
We’re so lucky here with our weather—we actually go to more outdoor parties during the month of December than any other time during the year.
What makes a Savannah celebration unique?
First of all, Savannah goes all-out for the holidays. We always put out the best of everything. We love to polish and plan. But we also love to relax and have a great time. We know at the end of the day it’s all about having fun. It’s all very civil.
Savannah entertains in so many different ways. Each square has its own unique decorations and flair. Each neighborhood likes to entertain in different ways, from lavish parties to porch gatherings or parties on the water.
Also, there are so many different types of religious celebrations in our city and each is important. I know my favorite part of the holidays is going to my church at Isle of Hope Methodist to be with family and friends, singing songs and lighting candles. That’s what I think about when I think about the holidays.
The title of your book, A Savannah Christmas, is a little misleading, isn’t it? You have a beautiful Hanukkah story in here, too. What inspired it?
Habersham Woods is a very important neighborhood to Savannah and it’s home to a large Jewish community with rich traditions. The photos are from the home of Tony and Donna Eichholz in Habersham Woods. They have collected those menorahs for more than 50 years.
Donna is the entertainer of their family and she loves to decorate. She invited us into her home to take the photos right before the family arrived for their annual Hanukkah celebration. She has a great attention to detail and she is such a party planner. She does every detail on her own—we didn’t have to do a thing for that photo shoot.
Did you feel the need to approach Hanukkah décor from a different angle than Christmas?
No, I think decorating for Hanukkah has the same energy and excitement of Christmas. Donna said she loves to decorate because she has two daughters and she wants them to pass down these traditions to their own families. That seems to be a constant theme for all the families involved in the book.
What are the “ingredients” of a Savannah holiday? In other words, what do you look for around town to know the holidays are here?
I think the biggest sign for me is to see all the beautiful greenery downtown. When I drive through the Historic District and see wreaths on all the doors and they are filled with fruit, I know the holidays have arrived. I also love to see docks draped with garlands and the boat masts wrapped with the tiny lights on the Bull River. Another sign of the holidays for me is food—oysters, Champagne and shrimp ’n’ grits are what I think about.
Why do you think Savannahians incorporate fruit into our wreaths? What does it signify?
It’s a tradition that began a long time ago in the South. My mama always got oranges in her stocking on Christmas morning when she was a girl. Back then, fruit was a treasure and a treat—it was something special. Fresh fruit added to the grandeur of the holidays and that continues today.
In one chapter, you combine Granny Smith apples with Confederate jasmine to make a gorgeous centerpiece. It’s eccentric and elegant—very Savannah.
I also like to use Key limes, mandarin oranges or blood oranges. I add huge succulents into the wreath for an unorthodox combination of greenery. Then I like to take little hand-blown glass containers and tie them all over the wreath with twine. I put water in the small vases and drop in a tiny flower like a Star of Bethlehem. I think it’s unusual, but it makes for a beautiful wreath.
That sounds gorgeous. And of course, you have a whole section dedicated to silver. Tell me about some of the creative uses for these items.
People in Savannah really treasure their silver and love to pull it out and use it for the holidays. I like to use it year-round. For example, I like to plant orchids in a silver bowl because it makes an unusual and beautiful planter.
I’ve also learned that some Savannahians like to collect small pieces of silver and use them to decorate their Christmas trees. In the book, there’s a photo of a tree from Charles Brown’s antique shop. He hangs rare silver coins on one tree and small silver baby cups on another.
We’ve only talked about good ideas so far. Give me a “don’t.” What’s one of the biggest mistakes hosts and hostesses make?
I think some people try to overdo things. This is a time to enjoy family and not stress about decorations or parties. I try to tell people to decorate and then call it a day. There is so much in this city to enjoy and it’s such a great time to relax, hang out and enjoy the beautiful weather of the season.
Tell me about one of your most disastrous Savannah holiday moments.
Oh, gosh—that’s funny! I don’t remember a specific disaster right off the top of my head. I guess I try to enjoy the holidays no matter what. If anything breaks or if I burn the food, I just try to laugh about it and go on. I have learned that if I don’t get upset, no one else will.
That’s good advice. How else can the outside world benefit from our way of doing things?
Well, there are some really good recipes in the book. [Go to page 87 in the Nov./Dec. issue for Holley's Pickled Shrimp recipe; page 91 for Sweet Potato Biscuits with Ham] We have great food here, and when people come to Savannah and experience it, they always enjoy it.
I also think the book will give people ideas about how to decorate their porches with candles and garlands. We have some great decorating ideas in Savannah that can put a twist on someone’s own great ideas. I hope when people read the book, they get the feeling that the holidays here are beautiful but relaxed.
You wrote this book with Kimberly Ergul. What brought y’all together on this project?
We were neighbors in Ardsley Park. Kimberly is an interior designer with an incredible eye. She actually came to me years ago and asked me to make flower compositions to set up in her home. I would bring over about 10 of them and she would invite people into her home and sell them for me.
We became good friends. With her interiors and my gardening, we found we make a good team. She said that Savannah needed a holiday book and that we should make one. So we did—and we had a great time putting it together.
Speaking of fun, what are your top five must-see holiday scenes in the Hostess City?
Just five? That’s tough! OK, if I could take someone to just five places to show off the city for the holidays, I would start with a family boat ride. We would bring some snacks and some drinks and just have a good time looking around. The water is a totally different way to see Savannah.
Next, I would bring my guests to The Olde Pink House bar for an incredible dinner. We would go to Broughton Street and walk around to look at the art galleries, Paris Market, the shops—then Leopold’s for ice cream. I would also take them on a tour of downtown. We’d walk the squares to see the decorations and then stroll to Forsyth Parkto see the large tree. How many is that? Four?
Um, I think so. I need to keep this list for myself for when I have company visit.
Number five would be a trip to Tybee. I love the old-fashioned lights on the telephone poles. I would also want to take a kayak trip to Little Tybee and then to AJ’s for dinner. In December, we are at Tybee a lot. Is that five?