Monthly Archives: December 2012

Victorian Christmas

FirstchristmascardWhen I think of classic Christmas traditions, I picture things like: caroling, mistletoe, sleigh rides, garlands with red bows; and, of course greeting cards.

The first mass produced Christmas card designed by J.C. Horsley, and was sent by Henry Cole, who decided to send his many acquaintances something different from his usual Christmas letter.  They sold for one shilling each, and only 2,050 copies were lithographed.  It depicted two acts of charity on the right and the left: of clothing and feeding the poor; with the middle section depicting a well-to-do family toasting to Christmas and the year ahead.  It proved to be a very popular idea. You can find lovely examples of early Christmas cards and postcards today which make an excellent heirloom decoration or collection.

santaFor Santa, Santa Claus or Father Christmas, also sometimes referred to as St. Nicholas (who really was a saint), my preference would be Father Christmas…those pictured with the long robe and cap, often carrying a lantern or staff. The Dutch call him St. Nick, and in Germany he’s Kris Kringle.  In ancient times, Norse and German peoples told stories of The Yule Elf who brought gifts during Solstice to those who left offerings of porridge.

The more modern traditions I am not so fond of: the slurping of eggnog, getting up early, or those stale fruitcakes from the department stores. However, apparently if you get one of those fruitcakes and don’t want to waste it, you can use the cake as a bottom layer when making fudge or chocolates. Interesting idea!!

Fruit cakes became popular in the 16th century when sugar from the American Colonies (and the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits) created an excess of candied fruit, making fruit cakes more affordable. Today, some fruit cakes have white icing while others include rum and other spirits.

IMG_1365Christmas greenery has always been a traditional decoration for many eras and cultural movements. The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling.  Those who met under it could claim a kiss.  The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries.  Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off.  No more berries, no more kisses!

Today, you can still experience a Victorian Christmas by visiting heritage sites such as Eldon House and Fanshawe Pioneer Village here in London, Ontario, during December.

IMG_1415At Fanshawe Pioneer Village you can meet St. Nicholas, tour historic buildings that have been decorated with traditional greenery, learn how to make various holiday crafts and listen to the carolers who walk the grounds. Each year there is also a Dickens Dinner which includes a full Christmas meal, play and caroling. There is also a pancake breakfast for children which includes wagon or sleigh rides.

As you leave the property you can walk through a traditional style hedge maze, something that gained popularity after the 16th century.

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Perhaps the most famous antique hedge maze that still exists today is the Hampton Court maze in Britain. Much like that maze, Fanshawe’s has high walls, far taller than visitors to make the maze more challenging. That said, this maze also has a straight, immediate path from the village to the parking lot for those who simply wish to take a short detour through the maze to their car. It’s actually a great way to escape the wind and rain or snow, although at Christmas a little mistletoe wouldn’t hurt!

Eldon House’s decorations feature plenty of mistletoe! (But no berry picking, please!) When you walk in the front door or come through the drawing room you pass under the kissing ball which is affixed in the house each year at Christmas.

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The staircase is lovingly adorned with garland and pine cones, and throughout the house you’ll find various arrangements of aromatic pine and other seasonal greenery organized by the Garden Club of London.

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Some of my favourite decorations in the house are the Victorian cards and postcards. I have started my own collection but they have some beauties!

Both the dining room and drawing room are set up for a party. The dining room with it’s elaborately set dinner table and silverware. Decanters hold brandy and other after dinner liqueurs.

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The drawing room is a holiday masterpiece with traditional Christmas tree, gifts and a table full of sweets.

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The library is a perfect reflection of a snug winter’s eve where the Harris family would have gathered for stories, music and camaraderie.

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So, as you snuggle in with your family for a quiet night together or a party with friends, think of all the generations before you who have participated in the celebration of family and friendship at this time of the year. The traditions of the past still influence the present and I think it is a beautiful thing that so many positive parts of history remain at Christmastide.

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Show and tell

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Photo credit Mark Tovey, Garrison Theatricals

Annually, at the London and Middlesex Historical Society general meeting, we have a show and tell session. It’s a great opportunity to hear from other members and history enthusiasts about what they’ve found during the past year. Many items have stories associated with them and others are just fun finds or items that end up as a research subject.

One interesting find included a Great Western Railway lantern. It had different panels of coloured glass, allowing rail workers to change the signal when the lantern was lit by swiveling the casing around to communicate with approaching trains at different points before and after stations or switching areas. A pretty smart invention.

Another member brought in an unusual hand-mirror which had what appeared to be a commemorative image of London on it. The date said 1855 but due to the colour photo we’re unsure of the actual date. The other find that was brought in that was a great surprise was a receipt from London’s very first store, dated 1833! The bill was issued by O’Brien who is known to be one of London’s first merchants.

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IMG_0105 Our past president found this amazing British military shako plate (which went on the hats/helmets of personnel). It was from my favourite regiment, the 83rd regiment of foot, Wenman Wynniatt’s posse!

So what did I bring to the show and tell?

Two fun vintage finds from local shop, Lovesick.The first item was a mystery at first sight, but the owner of the shop quickly showed me that it was a genius of an invention to help ladies get dressed in the 50s and 60s…an extended zipper pull. I love the smart decorative case that it comes in!

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The next item was an art deco brooch. Very much in tune with the fashion of decades past, the brooch also functions as a place to adorn yourself with a picture of a loved one. I love the photo that came with this brooch. Sample photos like this one are in themselves an interesting reflection of the period contemporary to the piece. While I didn’t bring it to the historical society’s show and tell, I also picked up some fun vintage clothes at Lovesick while I was there, antiques and shopping for clothing go very well together!

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I also had some interesting finds earlier this fall at the Grand Theatre‘s costume sale. I got up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning to rifle through the items available from the local theatre’s costume department. Was it worth it? Absolutely! I got some amazing items and for a fabulous price too! My favourite items were a fun hat and fascinator, a 1920s inspired dress as well as a fluffy white 1950s dress.

2012 has been a fabulous year for history related outings. Finding shops that carry vintage clothes and accessories is a great way for the antique enthusiast or history buff to integrate the past into everyday life. It’s also a creative way to support your local economy and be a good friend to the environment by giving a good home to existing items.

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