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Illuminating Christmas Past

By Mary Quattlebaum
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 21, 2007

The holiday glow from Riversdale House Museum comes not from tinsel and colored bulbs but from old-fashioned candles. On Dec. 27 and 28, the historic Federalist mansion in Prince George's County holds a candlelit celebration of Christmas past.

Scheduling a holiday event during the relatively quiet week between Christmas and New Year's allows people to "enjoy time with family and friends without the press of preparing for the holidays," says Edward Day, director of the museum in Riverdale Park. "Calverts by Candlelight" features harp music, costumed interpreters, 19th-century-style refreshments, games, crafts and more.

During the evening program, "you can really see how people lived and survived in the past," says Becca White, 10. "They wore different clothes, ate different food and had different traditions."

Becca will don an empire-waisted gold dress for the program and portray one of the nine children born to George and Rosalie Calvert, owners of the house in the early 1800s. Many details of their family life, including holiday traditions, are known through Rosalie's letters, says Becca's mother, Joyce White, the museum's education director.

The candlelit tour and activities give a glimpse of life before indoor plumbing, grocery stores, TV and video games. Visitors can look for the rocking horse, dolls and miniature tea set in the nursery and the wingback potty chair in the master bedroom. In the kitchen, they can grind spices and mix dough as White cooks over an open hearth. They also can sample the sweet potato rolls and cookie-like Shrewsbury cakes they help to prepare.

"The program really excites all the senses -- and that helps place you in that time period," Joyce White says. There's the cinnamon-tinged taste of cider, the whiff of nutmeg in homemade cookies, the warmth of the hearth fire, gentle notes from the harp all bathed in soft candlelight. Fresh apples, magnolia leaves and pineapple (a symbol of hospitality) grace the "welcome" swag at the front door. Visitors can even add to the good smells by creating their own early American souvenir: a clove-studded pomander.

Ever wonder about the labor behind all those old-fashioned festivities? This year a temporary exhibit, "Out of the Shadows: Servants in the Spotlight," features the slaves and servants who kindled the fires, cooked the meals, fashioned the candles and made possible these elegant celebrations.

"It's important to tell their story, too," White says. "After all, these slaves and servants are as much a part of the household as the owners."

The exhibit uses mannequins, props and costumes to interpret five rooms from the servants' perspective. In the master chamber, a lady's maid cleans up the mess made by Rosalie Calvert as she dressed for a dinner party. In the butler's pantry, a cheese plate awaits serving and washtubs stand ready for dirty crystal and china. In the kitchen, a slave meal of hominy, salt pork and greens contrasts with the lavish repast being prepared for the Calverts and their guests.

"Kids are often very curious about who did the work and what that work involved," White says. "I think they're surprised by how hard and how constantly slaves and servants had to work."

The candlelit program can illuminate intriguing differences not just between Christmas past and present but between the house family's and servants' experience of the holiday.

"This is what [a history program is] all about," museum director Day says. "Hopefully, it will set off those sparks that get kids wondering, thinking and comparing."

Calverts by Candlelight Riversdale House Museum, 4811 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale Park Contact:301-864-0420. http://www.riversdale.org. Hours: Dec. 27 and 28 from 7 to 9 Admission:$5, free age 12 and younger. "Out of the Shadows: Servants in the Spotlight" through March 16 during regular hours Fridays and Sundays from noon to 4 (last tour departs at 3:30), other times by appointment. Exhibit included with museum admission: $3 adults, $2 seniors and groups, $1 students, free age 4 and younger. Calverts by Candlelight Riversdale House Museum, 4811 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale Park Contact:301-864-0420. http://www.riversdale.org. Hours: Dec. 27 and 28 from 7 to 9 Admission:$5, free age 12 and younger. "Out of the Shadows: Servants in the Spotlight" through March 16 during regular hours Fridays and Sundays from noon to 4 (last tour departs at 3:30), other times by appointment. Exhibit included with museum admission: $3 adults, $2 seniors and groups, $1 students, free age 4 and younger.

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