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A Christmas tour steps into the past History: 'Holiday Traditions in Old Baltimore' will showcase four house museums.


When Mary Pickersgill, 19th-century businesswoman, single mother and maker of the famous flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," prepared for Christmas, she didn't trim a tree, play Santa Claus or decorate her city house at Pratt and Albemarle streets in poinsettias. Her celebration in the early 1800s was quite different from Christmas in the 1990s.

"There was definitely not a Christmas tree," explains Beth Miller, assistant director of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, "because Christmas trees weren't around in the early 1800s. The holiday was celebrated more simply." The family would probably bring in a few greens on Christmas Eve and use them to swag a fireplace mantel, and they might bake some treat like gingerbread cookies. "But, for the most part, Christmas in that era was a religious holiday," she says.

On Dec. 13, visitors will get the chance to see the Flag House as it would have been decorated for the holidays, as well as three other local historic houses. "Holiday Traditions in Old Baltimore" will give tour-goers a chance to explore the decorations, food, and music of Christmas in the early 1800s as well as in the 1920s and 1930s, in Pickersgill's Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, the Homewood House, Mount Clare and Evergreen House.

Christmas celebrations were similar to those at Flag House, if a little more elaborate, on the country estates of well-to-do early 19th-century gentlemen. Charles Carroll Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, presided over Homewood House, on what is now the campus of Johns Hopkins.

"There was not a lot of grandiosity in decorating," explains Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator of Homewood. "The estate had an orchard and formal gardens and a few citrus trees that were brought inside during the winter, so apples, pears, lemons, magnolia, mistletoe and boxwood would have been available to use." Like at the Pickersgill house, there would have been no Christmas tree.

During the time the family lived together in the house (1802-1816), they would have enjoyed the festive aspects of the holiday, although even for the Carrolls, "The holiday was primarily a religious event," adds Arthur. Carroll was Catholic and his wife, Harriet Chew, Anglican.

But the family would have entertained with dinners, followed by card playing, dancing or some type of musical presentation. Children were sometimes called upon to perform and were often given small gifts. Special foods were ordered including the coveted orange. "It was so prized that people would be excited to just get an orange section to eat," says Arthur.

Since Christmas decorating was minimal in the 19th century, floral arrangers will take some license when they decorate the rooms of the three Federal period houses on the tour. They will use the materials of that era - magnolia, holly, ivy, boxwood, mistletoe - but they will use them more elaborately then they would have been used in the early 1800s. "If not, people are usually disappointed when they see how simple decorations really were," explains Arthur.

At Mount Clare, a city property operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, volunteers are planning to decorate each public room of the museum and to bring in the Monument Fife and Drum Corp and the Susquehanna Consort to perform period music.

"One of the things that is so special about Mount Clare is that over 80 percent of the collection is original to families who lived in the house," says director Joan Feldman, explaining the origin of the 18th- and 19th-century furniture, some of it bought by Margaret Tilghman, who married Charles Carroll in 1763.

In addition to the three Federal houses, Evergreen, the Greek Revival mansion once occupied by diplomat John Work Garrett and his wife, Alice Warder, will be on the tour. Although the house was built in the 1850s, only one room - the reception room - will be decorated in the Victorian style. The drawing room, dining room and library will be decorated in the style of the 1920s and 1930s, when the couple were often in residence.

House tours

"Holiday Traditions in Old Baltimore" will be held Dec. 13 from noon to 5 p.m. Four historic house museums, Mount Clare, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, the Homewood House and the Evergreen House, will be open. Each will be decorated to fit its historic period and will offer period music, entertainment and holiday treats.

Continuous bus service will run between the houses, with a stop at the Pratt Street Pavilion in downtown Baltimore. Free parking will be available at Mount Clare, 1500 Washington Blvd., and Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St.

Tickets are $8 for members of participating museums; $10 for nonmembers; $8 for children. Group tickets are available. Tickets are now on sale at each house and may be bought on the buses on the day of the tour. For more information, call 410-516-0341.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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