Interpreting winter seasonal decor in New England for the pre-Civil War period can be a tricky thing. Christmas as a major national celebration didn’t truly come into its own in the United States until the mid-19th century and Thanksgiving on a Thursday in November wasn’t established at the national level until President Lincoln’s decree of 1863.
Without delving too deeply into the history of Christmas and other winter holidays in the United States and early colonies, I wanted to share a little of how we decorate Buckman Tavern for the winter. I cut my eye teeth in museum work at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They host an annual Candlelight Stroll of their many historic houses and helping prepare for these events taught me what traditions are pretty universal in wintertime (at least north of the equator!).
When the days grow short and the weather grows cold, it’s natural to want to add light and natural elements to your home. Decorating with fresh greens and fresh or dried fruit was common even before the excess of Victorian-era Christmas. Real natural objects in a historic building, however, are not recommended due to possible risk of pest infestation or fire. So what do you do if you can’t use real? Go faux!
We use a lot of faux greens and food in the houses, which come from a variety of sources. From specialty companies that produce faux food for museum exhibits to IKEA and Amazon, we’ve spent years amassing the raw material with which to make the tavern glow.
Take this photo, for example. This is the long table (actually two historic tables) in the West Room of the tavern. Normally, it holds candlesticks, writing paper, inkwells, quill pens, pounce pots, and reproduction maps and newspapers. As such, it is interpreted as a meeting space for the town government and for the local militia.
For the holidays, however, it’s interpreted as a meal space for a large group. The tablecloth and napkins are oatmeal colored linen that I use for exhibits, the tartan scarf is a Munroe family pattern that I borrowed from gift shop stock, and the greenery is faux pine garland from a craft store. The apples, turkey, and lemons (far end) are faux. Note: the turkey is one of our tour guide and staff favorites. Check out this video to see how it came to be.
The candlesticks, ceramics, pewter plate, and most of the pewter mugs are period, all probably dating between 1750 and 1840 (details about most of these objects are in our online catalog). It’s great fun and a great challenge to tie modern, exhibit-appropriate props with period pieces in a way that looks consistent and appealing.
One final item to mention is our Christmas tree. We place a small fake tree in the kitchen and decorate it with basic rustic ornaments of wood and tin. It also bears a large text label “ornament” that explains that it is, in fact, a time traveler. Our historic houses are interpreted for 1775 and Christmas trees didn’t arrive in Lexington until the 1830s. There’s a fascinating story about how they did, actually.
Buckman Tavern is decorated for the season and open to all for free on the day of the Lexington Tea Burning. The 2019 date is not decided yet, but it is usually the second Sunday of the month. Watch our social media and website next year for your opportunity to see the seasonal decor in person! And check out the photos below to see how the tavern looked in 2018.
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.