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Deck the halls: Historic homes ready for holiday visitors

A Christmas tree is surrounded by toys.
A Christmas tree is surrounded by toys. Courtesy of Historic Columbia

Long before stores devoted thousands of square feet peddling Christmas lights, artificial trees and inflatable Santas, Columbians decorated homes for the holidays in a more understated and simpler manner.

Historic Columbia gives folks the opportunity to get a glimpse of how local homes were decorated in the 1800s with guided holiday tours of the Robert Mills House and the Hampton-Preston Mansion.

These tours exhibit a variety of holiday decorations and traditions in both historic homes through Dec. 30. Tour guides share stories of holidays past in Columbia and discuss how families decorated and entertained during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the Robert Mills House, guests will see how a home of its size might have been decorated in the 1820s during the time before Christmas trees were popular. Across the street at the Hampton-Preston Mansion, a look at Christmas from the 1830s to 1860s give a hint of today’s traditions that have roots from this time, like poinsettias and Christmas trees.

“The manner in which we celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Day has changed and evolved over the centuries in the United States and here in Richland County,” said Fielding Freed, Historic Columbia’s director of house museums. “In the early 19th century, decorations ranged from none at all to sparse, usually of simple evergreen plant material.”

In South Carolina, that included pine, cedar, ivy, or magnolia leaves. Along with the simple evergreens, food was also a key component in holiday decorating.

“The holidays were more focused on eating, drinking, dancing, and visiting than decorating,” Freed said. “Desserts such as sugared fruit were made to display and eat and to decorate. ‘Trees’ of citrus such as lemons were popular. Nutmeg on oranges looked and smelled nice, too.”

Freed said plants were always used to decorate for special occaision and Christmas was no exception.

“Evergreens were and are used because they are what is green in winter. Here in South Carolina, we had more plant opportunities that included magnolias. However, nothing is more South Carolinian to decorate with than poinsettias,” Freed said.

That’s because poinsettia plants are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolina statesman who brought the plant to the United States from Mexico after being an emissary and then first U.S. minister there from 1822-1829.

Handmade decorations such as paper snowflakes could also have been used early on, Freed said. Store bought German-made ornaments became popular in the 1850s, once the Christmas tree became popular.

It was during the Victorian era that elements of a modern Christmas began to emerge, Freed said. Historic Columbia’s goal in decorating the Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion is to educate the public about those changes so that they may understand the history of the modern holiday season.

The holiday decorations in the two houses are chronological: the Robert Mills House exhibits 1820s and the Hampton-Preston Mansion 1830s through 1870s. Both Christmas and New Year’s Day are shown and discussed during the program and tours.

The Robert Mills House was built in 1823 for Sarah and Ainsley Hall. While it was designed to be their residence, no one ever lived here; instead it served most of its history as the Columbia Theological Seminary. Despite this fact, the house is currently set up as a typical upper-class home of 1820s Columbia.

“The focus is on New Year’s, which was the time for large meals, gift giving, visiting friends, merry making during the early 19th-century,” Freed said. “The decorations are rather simple greenery with fruit. The focus is the dining room table, which is set for a dessert course. The centerpiece is a plumb pudding. You will also see a punch display since punches, with and without alcohol (but mostly with), were very popular at the time.”

At the Hampton Preston Mansion, all of the elements of a modern Christmas are present and include a table top Christmas tree, poinsettias, and stockings hung by the chimney with care for Santa to fill with fruit, candy and small toys. The dining room is set for a large holiday meal, which includes turkey, beef, soup, vegetables — served on family china and silver, Freed said.

Perhaps holiday decorations were more prevalent for the affluent members of the community.

“The best indication of this is an original December 1860 Harper’s Weekly, which is on display at Hampton-Preston,” Freed said. “This illustration shows various holiday vignettes, one of which is titled ‘Poor Man’s Christmas’ and shows a family huddled in a fireplace with no decorations or gifts.”

Want to replicate a historic holiday look in your home this season? Fielding Freed, Historic Columbia’s director of education, offers these tips:

  • To be historically accurate, less is more
  • Hold off on the bows; ribbon was not used very often
  • Use fruit as decoration; that can include citrus, pineapples, coconuts, and others in-season now
  • Use plant materials that smell nice such as pine, sage, and lavender
  • Use a tabletop tree
  • After dark, lighting with candles is one sure way to evoke Christmas of the 19th century. Off white, scentless and drip less tapers are historically accurate as is a bees wax candle.

If you go

Historic Christmas Tours

When: Through Dec. 30. 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Purchase tickets and begin the tour at Robert Mills House, 1616 Blanding Street

Details: $15 adults, $10 youth; free for Historic Columbia members. 803-252-1770 ext. 23; reservations@historiccolumbia.org; historiccolumbia.org.

Candlelight Tours and Carriage Ride

Visit the decorated, candlelit halls of the Hampton-Preston Mansion and the Robert Mills House and on a guided tour during Historic Columbia’s Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides.

When: Dec. 14, 6-9 p.m.

Where: Robert Mills House, 1616 Blanding Street,, Columbia

Details: $15 adults, $8 youth; $5 adults, youth free for Historic Columbia members; Carriage rides are an additional $10 a person. You must buy a Candlelight Tour ticket to purchase a Carriage ride ticket. 803-252-1770 ext. 23; reservations@historiccolumbia.org; historiccolumbia.org.

About: There will be live music, entertainment, children’s activities and hot chocolate from Drip Coffee. Before or after your house tour, take a carriage ride through the Robert Mills Historic District. Stop by the Gift Shop’s holiday open house throughout the evening for a last minute store-wide sale as well as refreshments, holiday tunes and giveaways. There is limited space on the carriage rides and guests are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance in addition to their Candlelight Tour ticket.