O Christmas Tree

Victorian Homes

O Christmas Tree

Great ideas from house museum trees from across the country

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Victorian Homes | February 2009


In Victorian times, Christmas wasn’t quite the decadent affair we expect today. Decorations were created from natural items found on the grounds of a home. Ornaments were largely homemade. The season was shorter, with Christmas trees being unveiled usually on Christmas Eve.

But that type of low-key celebration just wouldn’t be enough to draw out most visitors to Victorian house museums. The December holidays have become a must-do fundraiser for many of the organizations, bringing return visitors year after year and a sense of excitement to the homes that the public embraces. So, many house museums take a little license with the holiday. Explains Jim Kern, Executive Dairector of Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, “A modern visitor coming to a mansion of this grandeur expects to see something more grand,” Kern says. “It’s trying to recapture the flavor of a grand home. But they probably did not have 16 trees in the house.”

We’ve taken a peek inside some of the country’s most elegant Victorian house museums to get ideas for Christmas trees in your home. Accompanying this story are five photos of trees graciously provided by the museums that showcase great designs and ideas. For a truer experience, support the museums by visiting and soak in a little of the season. All museums included here are closed on Christmas Day, and many on Christmas Eve, so call before you go to make sure no tour dates have changed.

Brucemore

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo credit: Brucemore

One of the many rooms in Brucemore that receives the full Christmas treatment is the study. This is the room where matriarch Irene Douglas would have entertained afternoon guests for tea or any callers, according to Jim Kern, Executive Director of Brucemore, which is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This was also the space in the house where the Douglas children could roll up the rugs, crank up the Victrola and dance.

The Christmas tree shown here is one of 16 in the home, and it is decorated with ornaments and items that have a vintage style, but are not true vintage ornaments, as that simply would be too pricey for the museum. The museum uses reproduction ornaments on the Christmas trees. On the tree shown here, jewel tone balls and ornaments decorated with lace are the main elements.

The 2008 evening holiday tours will include a broad range of actors portraying the Douglas family, butlers and holiday guests.

Brucemore is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is a National Trust site. Brucemore is open for Christmas tours beginning the day after Thanksgiving and ending December 31.  Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays noon to 3 p.m. Evening tours are held Wednesdays and Thursdays in December, 5 to 8 p.m. Reservations are required for evening tours. Prices are $7 daytime for adults, $3 for students. Evening holiday tours are $10 for adults, $5 for students. On all tours, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Brucemore members can tour for free. For more information, visit www.brucemore.org or call (319) 362-7375

Molly Brown House Museum

Denver

Photo credit: Jeff Padrick, Klug Studios

Christmas at the Molly Brown House in the late Victorian era likely included a Christmas tree, a tradition that started during Victorian times, says Annie Robb Levinsky, director of the museum. “Prior to that, it had been a German tradition,” Levinsky says. “There were different trees for different purposes, a main formal tree, then a tree for children upstairs, a tree for servants in kitchen decorated with ornaments that they would have made themselves in kitchen.”

Garland would have decorated doorways and mantles, many times decorated with baby’s breath. The museum keeps Christmas lights to a minimum, but does use them. One tree in the house has candles on it, but the candles are not lit, due to the fire hazard.

The library at the Molly Brown House is depicted in this photo. Most of the ornaments on the tree are painted glass.  “We have several small glass Santa Clauses, and many painted glass birds with feathered tails, often either cardinals or peacocks,” Levinsky says. An Old World Christmas line of reproduction ornaments similar to those used in the Museum is sold in the Museum store each year, Levinsky says. The Museum uses red plaid ribbon on its main Christmas central tree, which cascades down from the tip of the tree. 

The Molly Brown House is located in Denver and is owned and operated by Historic Denver. The house is open for Christmas tours beginning usually around December 1 until the second week of January. Guided tours are given every half-hour, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Cost is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for children. For more information, visit www.mollybrown.org, or call (303) 832-4092.

Victoria Mansion

Portland, Maine

Photo credit: J. David Bohl

Getting into the spirit of the season at Victoria Mansion usually means a little research is involved, says Julia Kirby, deputy director of Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. The house was built between 1858 and 1860 in the Italianate style. Its opulent interiors were created by Gustave Herter, so the Christmas décor has the right to be entirely over-the-top.

Decorators and designers who design a room for the Christmas tour usually enjoy researching Victorian Christmas traditions and incorporating those ideas into the décor for the room they’ve chosen to decorate. “It’s not a designer showhouse,” Kirby says. “We try to be educational. It’s a family event.”

The museum is careful to make sure the décor closely resembles Victorian design. When appropriate, Kirby and other museum staff offer antiques to fit in with the theme of the tree, such as antique toys for a designer who wants to put toys around the base of a tree.

The tree shown in this photo was created by Dan Kennedy, Sawyer & Co. Florists in Portland, who has decorated the room for the past seven years. The tree shown here is in the home’s parlor, and the designer used a Christmas tree and swags above each window. Each year designers use glass ornaments, feathers, faux fruit and nuts, either painted or adorned with ribbon, to give the tree decorations a Victorian, home-made feel. “In the mid-19th century, you couldn’t go to the Christmas tree store to buy decorations,” Kirby says.

Victoria mansion is open for Christmas tour starting the day after Thanksgiving, Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The mansion’s last holiday tours occur on December 31. Cost is $12 adults, $5 for children six to 17, and free for kids six and under. Family tickets are $25 and apply to two adults of same household and up to five children. For more information, visit www.victoriamansion.org, or call (207) 772-4841.

Holmes County Historical Society

Millersburg, Ohio

Photo credit: Mark Boley, Holmes County Historical Society

The Christmas tour at the Holmes County Historical Society’s museum house is a chance to involve the community around the museum. It’s also an enjoyable time for designers to stretch their imagination, says Mark Boley, executive director of the society. The home’s dining room is one of the many rooms decorated in the home. The staff of the Inn and Spa at Honey Run did dining room decorations shown in the photo with this story, and true to Victorian form, the staff chose natural elements to create the look. “The theme for dining room is very natural, lots of leaves,” Boley says. “The centerpiece is gold fringed things and pheasant feathers. Birds are often used on the tree.”

The Holmes County Historical Society opens for its holiday tour the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and the tour continues through December 31. Hours are typically Monday through Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 8 p.m. COST. For more information, visit www.victorianhouse.org or call (330) 674-0022.

Lyndhurst

Tarrytown, N.Y.

Photo credit: Bryan E. McCay

Lyndhurst creates a Fairy Tale Holiday theme in each public room of the mansion for its Christmas program. Bob Pesce, the Manhattan-based designer of the Christmas decorations, says he switches rooms around and adds a new story to the house every year. The most Victorian in designs is the Nutcracker room. For the tree in this room, Pesce’s main element is Santa’s checklist. A scroll design cascades down the tree with names of girls and boys on it, denoting who’s getting treats, and who will get the dreaded coal. He also incorporates other elements that relate to royalty and ballet, including toe shoes and a five-foot tall nutcracker. The primary colors for the room are purple, magenta and red. Toys around the tree are from the museum’s collection. Among the 18 themes created for the holidays are  the Princess and the Pea, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk and Arabian Nights.

Lyndhurst is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house is decorated for the holidays annually by December 5. Self-guided holiday tours are held in the evenings every Saturday and Sunday in December from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Guided tours of the home are available on weekends only in December during the daytime. Admission for daytime tours is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors and $6 for children ages six to 16. Children age five and under are admitted free. Trust members can visit during the day for free but have to pay for the Fairy Tale holiday evening program. Admission for the evening event is $15 for adults and seniors, $6 for children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are admitted free. For more information, see www.lyndhurst.org or call (914) 631-4481.