Centennial High students take visitors back in time to Victorian Christmas

Members of the National History Honors Society at Centennial High School will take visitors to Mount Ida historic mansion back in time to find out how Christmas was celebrated in the Victorian era.

The History of Christmas in the 19th Century, an exhibit the history society created in partnership with Historic Ellicott City, will display a Christmas diary given by one of the first headmistresses of the Patapsco Female Institute school for girls to her son in the 1840s; offer tours of the mansion, fully decorated for the holidays; a dramatic reading of a selection of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"; and performances of traditional Victorian Christmas music by Centennial High students.


Historic Ellicott City Executive Director Maureen Sweeney Smith came up with the idea for the exhibit after collaborating with Centennial High's history society on an 1880s vintage baseball game held outside Mount Ida in September.

"They turned out and did a great job," Sweeney Smith said. "So I proposed the idea of doing a fundraiser for the history club. That's how we got started on this."


Mount Ida, which was built in 1828, houses the offices of both Historic Ellicott City and the Patapsco Female Institute; Paul Miller, who owns the house, leases it to the two organizations free of charge.

In previous years the house was closed to the public, but when Sweeney Smith became director of her organization in February, she determined that the house needed to be opened for visitors.

"Fortunately our board members were really supportive of that," she added.

Historic Ellicott City, which restores and preserves local historic properties, opened the house to visitors every third Sunday during the summer and fall months. The organization opened up the house again last weekend and will open again this Saturday so that visitors can see the holiday decorations put up by the volunteers and students.

"I knew the mansion was going to be decorated for the holidays, so I knew [the history society] would have a venue," she said. "It was just a question of training them to give tours, and setting up exhibits."

Sweeney Smith saw the history of Christmas exhibit as a chance for the history club to raise funds — they will receive all proceeds from the event — but also to learn how a museum works.

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"I wanted them to do everything, from creating a budget to doing the marketing to making the displays," she said. "On top of that, they got choruses from their school to sing Christmas carols and two people from the theater department to do a dramatic reading of 'The Christmas Carol.' "

On Saturday, two choruses from Centennial High will be caroling down Main Street to advertise for the exhibit. Inside the house, students dressed up in Victorian garb will be giving tours, selling 19th-century baked goods and talking about the 19th-century journal that they borrowed from the Howard County Historical Society.


Benjamin Goldstein, a senior at Centennial High and president of the society, said that he and a few other students visited the Miller Branch library to ask the county's historical society for a local holiday-related newspaper or similar item from the 19th century, so they could use it to study what Christmas was like during the 1800s. That is when the organization loaned the journal to the students.

Centennial High School's Benjamin Goldstein works with Maureen Sweeney-Smith in preparing for the exhibit at Mt. Ida. Historic Ellicott City is partnering with the Centennial High School National History Honor Society to present an exhibit on the history of Christmas in the 19th century at the mansion on Dec. 12.

"We thought that it could really make history come alive," Goldstein said.

A member of the club "translated" or typed up all of the pages, written by various people, so that visitors to the exhibit can read a transcript of the journal, which contains entries from the 1840s through the 1930s.

"The journal itself is very hard to read, with the antiquated cursive," Goldstein said. "One of the most interesting passages is a letter from [headmistress] Elmira Phelps to her son that compared his mind to 'this unsullied page.' It's sort of like mom-language, through Charles Dickens."

The History of Christmas in the 19th Century exhibit at Mount Ida mansion, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, is open noon 12 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12. Entry costs $7 per person. For more information, go to or email