Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
The idea of historic Christmas decorations usually inspires the image of a room that would make The Ghost of Christmas Past from A Christmas Carol at home—something outfitted with holly and pine, with no shortage of ornaments and candles and ribbon.
But we were curious: Is that mind’s-eye notion of history purely fabricated, or is there any truth to it? How were houses decorated for Christmas in the 1800s?
For answers, we turned to the team at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which recently installed a display chronicling how Christmas decorations evolved in New England over the course of the 19th century.
“In the early 19th century—the 1830s—most New Englanders were not practicing Christmas,” says assistant curator Shelley Cathcart. “The majority of the population had Puritan roots, so most people were not decorating the interiors of their homes, especially with a Christmas tree.”
And those who were decorating their homes did so very modestly. The living room of Old Sturbridge Village’s Salem Town House is decorated in the style of the 1830s, and the decorations don’t even take up the entire surface of a small card table.
“Typically, you’ll see what’s called a ‘tree in a tub’ that is decorated with whimsies like gold stars, cornucopia, and surrounded by a few toys,” says Cathcart.
As the 19th century progressed, celebrating Christmas becomes a more accepted tradition: Massachusetts declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1856.
“While I was researching diaries and letters for evidence of Christmas traditions,” says Cathcart, “sometimes entires would entirely skip over the day—people will say they washed clothes or did other mundane chores. But in the mid-19th century, you start to see people mentioning hanging stockings by the fire, and having Santa Claus stop by.”
As Christmas became more accepted in New England, so too did decorations. Adding another yule log to the fire was the influence from England that came in the form of an image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating Christmas around a table-top tree. The image became very popular stateside, being reprinted in publications and newspapers across the country.
As a result, the scene dedicated to the 1850s amplifies the presence of the Christmas tree and features swags of garland on the windows. “We used a lot of pine and boxwood,” says Cathcart.
“We built on the 1830s scheme, but we didn’t want to get overly excited, since at the time, the idea of celebrating Christmas in this way still wasn’t widely accepted.”
With these historic recreations, sometimes liberties have to be taken with respect to the fine details. Cathcart and her team were basing their displays mainly on written accounts. Every so often, though, she would find a drawing on which to base the scene, as she did when researching how decorations evolved into the late 19th century.
Cathcart found an illustration from about 1870 of a dining room bedecked in Victorian decorations. The illustration, by a woman named Lucy Ellen Merrill, was one of many that would be included in a book called, appropriately, Merry Christmas. Cathcart said that the moment she found the highly detailed drawing, she knew that she wanted to recreate the scene almost exactly at the Salem Town House.
By the 1870s, decorations were flourishing. “The 1870s—post-Civil War America—is such a formative time in our history,” says Cathcart. “You now have the department stores selling ready-made goods, and you have the newspapers pushing the holiday. It’s all so commercial, and that gets reflected in the decorations.”
Cathcart said that she wanted the decorations to be almost out of control. The dining room features holly trimming the table settings, stacks of presents at every seat, a flouncy centerpiece of fern and evergreen, a decorated mantlepiece, and windows trimmed in boxwood with wreaths. Also noticeable is that the Christmas tree has hopped off the table and is now a height more familiar to contemporary celebrants.
Many of the decorations that take hold in the 1870s and into the turn of the 20th century exist, in some form or another, today. And whether you favor the more modest decorations of the 1830s or the lavish Victorian adornments, there’s the commonality between all the scene that exists in the types of materials used. Pine, ferns, holly, and boxwood connect the scenes spanning the 19th century—and also connect many 21st-century decorations to the past.
“I’ve seen so many people come through these rooms and talk about how they can take inspiration for their own homes,” says Cathcart. “And yes! You really can—the decorations are a lot like what we do today.”