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Deck the Halls

"Are you decorated for Christmas?” It is a common question most house museums get this time of year. But it creates a conundrum for historians. We want to be authentic to the period the house represents, but what is authentic? Christmas was not made a federal holiday until 1870. So that means that while Adelicia did celebrate Christmas, the way she would have decorated for the holiday in the 19th century was very different from the way we decorate today.

According to Floral Decorations for the Dwelling House, published in 1876 “One could hardly believe it was Christmas in the absence of Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe, which have so long at the season occupied prominent places in our household…. Formerly, the decorations of rooms consisted of a few branches of evergreens stuck here and there as might be convenient; but now they are of a much more complicated character.”

The book goes on to explain how in the week before Christmas the lady of the house put up tasteful decorations using many different types of flowers and ornamental shrubs. For example, the foundation for a garland was typically a hemp rope with bows of evergreen tied to it along with berry branches like holly. Wreaths had an iron foundation ring, to which branches were tied using wire. (See image below for sample designs).

Unfortunately, we do not have any references to Christmas decorations at Belmont, probably because the family was not here for the holiday. In 1855 and 1860, Adelicia was at Belmont for Christmas, but Joseph was in Louisiana. It was only from the Civil War on that Adelicia remained here for Christmas (before moving to Washington D. C. in 1884).

And so to answer the question, yes we have decorated for Christmas, but in keeping with the 19th century version of the season. (Unless you count the Christmas trees in the gift shop.)

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