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Holiday tradition endures at mansion Hampton historic site is true to past it portrays


Blinking Christmas lights are nowhere to be found. There are no plastic silver and gold garlands draped on the walls, fake snow sprayed on windows or life-size, mechanical Santas waving on the lawn.

But tomorrow at the pristine and historic 1780s Hampton Mansion, the early 19th-century dining room devastated by flooding a year ago will reopen with an elaborately decorated Christmas feast of desserts and fruit trees true to the period.

It's a tradition marked by dozens of local garden club members, who gathered yesterday morning to hang the traditional greens and add a touch of holiday color to some of the Georgian mansion's 33 rooms.

"We have a special place in our heart for Hampton because it's a part of our community," said Sally Page, a member of the Glen Arm Garden Club, one of 35 clubs in the District 3 Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland, which has helped decorate the mansion for several decades. "This is one of our biggest events. It puts us in the holiday spirit because we imagine that we're back in the 18th century decorating the house."

The mansion, built between 1783 and 1790 and occupied by seven generations of the Ridgely family, has gone through its ups and downs. It operated at a deficit for several years, and there was the burst water pipe last year. The repairs cost more than $65,000 and took most of the year.

Hanging over this year's festivities is the imminent closing of the the mansion's popular tea room, which has been deemed a potential fire hazard. It closes Dec. 31, the end of 43 years of tradition.

"It's also very sad this time around because the tea room is going to close forever," said Page.

But yesterday, gloom was replaced by yuletide cheer as volunteers from Lake Roland Garden Club hung 19th-century handmade paper ornaments and cranberry chains on a 13-foot-tall Christmas tree gracing the mansion's Victorian music room.

In the Great Hall, Glen Arm Garden Club volunteers pushed cloves into oranges and then dipped them into powder and cinnamon to make 18th-century pomanders. Foot-tall lemon and apple trees festooned with boxwoods were placed in the dining room. A flurry of hands pieced together holly and boxwood wreaths and swags to hang above mantels.

The style of the decorations was authenticated through documents and photographs from the Ridgely family papers, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Historical Society.

For example, entries in Didy "Eliza" Ridgely's diaries helped researchers trace dolls, carved animals and clothing given to slave children at Christmas in the drawing room. Research also showed that by the 20th century, the Ridgelys traditionally set up a large red cedar lighted with candles in the music room.

While historians in the mansion have stuck with the red cedar, the candles have long since disappeared -- they, too, were deemed a fire hazard.

"When I first got here, we were much more modern and not at all representative of the historic period," said Lynne D. Hastings, who has been curator for almost 18 years at the Hampton National Historic Site on the edge of Towson. "Our mission now is to talk about, explain and preserve the way this estate was for 200 years. We want to tell true stories.

"As much as that disappoints some people, that means no Santa," Hastings said.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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