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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.

Fun historic outings

It was a busy summer, but luckily I was still able to fit in some great local history outings here in London, Ontario.

Tea on the lawn at Eldon House is always a treat. The season is now over but I managed to pop in just before it ended and enjoyed a shady spot on the lawn under the magnolia tree. I usually try to attend once a year for their outdoor tea program because the scones are lovely and the tea is delicious. This year featured homemade iced tea which was very refreshing. Strawberry and raspberry jam went perfectly with all. I wish I could have gone more often 😦

If you haven’t visited for a tour or for tea, be sure to put it on next summer’s bucket list! Should you prefer an autumn outing, Eldon House has great programs on during the fall as well. Visit them for a tour, a workshop, or as part of the Doors Open London weekend later this month.

Summer Tea Program
July 3 to September 2
Tuesday through Sunday
2:00 to 4:00 pm
Cost: $7 for tea, $10 for tea and house tour

Other historic event highlights

June 9 – Historic Woodfield neighborhood had its annual street fair. Each year they shut down the street and have horse and carriage tours, music, Victorian games and more.

June 14 – Red Antiquities building had its open house. What a great milestone after all the hard work, fund-raising and renovations. I didn’t get to attend but the place looks fantastic!

July 4 – Great Gatsby Gala at the Elsie Perrin Williams estate. This event always looks like such a blast and the estate is a fun place to explore. Check out the photos!

Just having a root beer with an officer!

Fun at Fanshawe Pioneer Village

Earlier this summer I also ventured out to Fanshawe Pioneer Village.

The village always has something going on, especially during holiday weekends. You can visit with the historical interpreters, explore the buildings or shop in the old hardware store.

Here are some highlights from my visit, but don’t take my word for it, they’ve got all kinds of great events lined up for this fall right up to December!

Lace-work by historical interpreters

The Orange Lodge

Jason Rip as the phrenologist with his subject!

The London Free Press building exhibit

Douglas Teeter explains early printing tools

Paul Peel’s childhood home

Getting all cranked up about history!

Garrison Theatricals recreate 1842 play ‘The Miller and His Men’

When the British army were stationed in London, Upper Canada in 1837 their presence not only brought security but a new sense of society which benefited both the local upper class and the officers. By 1839 not only were they using their time and talent to create better roads in London, but they were also putting on theatrical performances.

Historian and producer Mark Tovey recently worked with Joe Lella and a their team called Garrison Theatricals to perform ‘The Miller and His Men’, last seen on the stage in London in 1842, put on by a group of British officers.

The highly popular Melo-Drama written by Sir Isaac Pocock was re-enacted on July 12-14 and 19-22, 2011 at Fanshawe Pioneer Village in the authentic Miller Barn.

The story focuses around an old miller and his beautiful daughter who is pursued by two suitors: one aging, but rich; another young but poor. To win her hand, the young man makes a secret pledge: to rid the land of the banditti, and restore the fortunes of the old miller.

But much drama unfolds when the wealthy but sketchy miller Grindoff has his own agenda.

The immediate introduction of a musical number set the pace for a fun-filled and captivating performance. The lyrics were adjusted creatively to fit the play…’Pour Oh Pour the Rebel Lager’ was a favorite rendition sung to the tune of ‘Pour Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry’ by Gilbert & Sullivan.

Traditional Canadian Melodies were also used to add authenticity such as ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’…which I don’t think I’ve ever heard but am glad I did because it was heartwarming. I thought it must have been a contender for the Canadian anthem and it looks like unofficially it was for a while, but was deemed too pro-British to stand the test of time and therefore unknown to newer generations of Canadians.

Also lending an authentic tone was the great job done on costumes by Brenda Fieldhouse. From the buttons on the officers uniforms to the bonnets on the ladies heads the actors were decked out in period garb which seems to have made them feel right at home in the Miller Barn.

The actors gave an excellent performance. The company had a good mix of experienced and fresh blood, and I would go back and see this group perform again. Hannah Drew stood out as the lovely and delicate Claudine, while Andrew House seemed to easily give the miller Grindoff his creepy charm…surprising to find out this was Andrew’s debut! Penny Jones, Mark Tovey and the rest of the cast made so many of the scenes feel real, specifically the tavern and robber’s lair. Benjamin Dyck and Alondra Vega-Zaldivar also stood out in the musical numbers, specifically their solo performances, which gave the characters an added depth.

The audience loved the encouraged involvement to boo the villains and cheer the heroes. We didn’t need the signs telling us to do so, but they added a kitschy feel that made the play feel truly authentic. The location of the barn was a great bonus. Despite the heat of the day, the barn fit the performance well and the stage managers did a great job in setting the scenes effortlessly.

Many thanks to Garrison Theatricals for an unforgettable experience that was entertaining and educational. It was a pleasure to sit in the audience and see this play reenacted by an enthusiastic group who worked hard to deliver such an authentic experience, and who did so with such flair. Job well done!

Videos from the performance

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