Preparing Historic Columbia’s Robert Mills House for the holiday season means big blue bins of holly, pine cones and plastic fruit crowding the 1820s-style entryway come November.
Cheerful volunteers like Janice Bowman sling greenery onto seemingly every flat surface to whip the old house into Christmas-ready shape. Others set the dining room table for a dessert course with incredibly real-looking walnut pralines and marzipan.
Once they finish decorating Robert Mills House, they start work on the Hampton-Preston Mansion, setting up period-appropriate decorations there circa the 1850s.
Both historic homes are open for holiday tours until Dec. 31. Tour guides provide stories of holidays past in Columbia and discuss how families decorated and entertained during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bowman used to bring her young children to the tours every year.
“That was the start of our holiday season. We’d go home afterward and start decorating,” she said.
For more than 10 years, Bowman has volunteered to decorate the historic homes along with her now-grown daughter, Ellen Hayhurst.
“It was our tradition,” Hayhurst said. “Now, it’s special to be able to be in here decorating.”
Over the years, Bowman and Hayhurst have assembled quite a decorating crew and started a new yearly tradition at the Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion.
Friends Betsy Edgerton, Dena Creel, Carol Anne Bostick, Pat Itter and Judy Liner meet for decorating duty and a reunion.
Each year, the group tries to decorate slightly differently than years past, so guests don’t see exactly the same thing, Bowman said.
What visitors won’t see at Robert Mills House is a Christmas tree with presents, because neither was common in the early 1820s, said Fielding Freed, director of historic house museums at Historic Columbia.
“The holidays weren’t about gift giving at this point, but about social interaction,” he said.
Those interactions were lubricated by strong, milk-based rum punches, found in the bowl set out in the Robert Mills House living room.
And children were more likely to find oranges in their stockings than candy at this time.
“Anything citrus was a sign of status. Fruit was expensive,” Freed said.
Bowman said her favorite decorations are on the first floor, in a kitchen-area fixed up with holiday food preparations.
There’s a table laden with pie-making ingredients, another with biscuit-making in media res, even a broken egg on the floor.
“It’s such an authentic touch,” she said.
If you go
▪ Tours of the Robert Mills House are 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 1-4 p.m. Sunday.
▪ Tours of the Hampton-Preston Mansion are 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
▪ Visit The Gift Shop at Robert Mills House, 1616 Blanding St., to purchase tickets. Tours for members are free; for non-members, $8 for adults, $5 for youth.