HOLIDAYS have their eras. New Year's Eve is an Art Deco extravagance from the 1920s and '30s. The Fourth of July is a Federal picnic with all-day speaking and dinner on the ground from the early 1900s. Halloween belongs to heathen times B.C. But Christmas is a Victorian fete of the 1880s and '90s.
Those decades were a time of abundance; of large ribbons tied on the backs of chairs, lace doilies on sofa arms, upholstered and fringed fireplace mantels; of vines growing in chandeliers and trained to twine over windows; of slipcovers for grand pianos and real leaves pasted over doors; of shutters, shades, curtains and draperies piled atop each other.
More and more was not too much.
Christmas was celebrated in the same manner. Holiday tables groaned with game, fish, roasts, turkey, vegetables, biscuits, two kinds of potatoes, and on and on (though poorer folks, alas, had to do with whatever came in the wicker hampers of charity).
And there were Christmas trees. In fact, the installation of the first Christmas tree in the White House was a Victorian happening - in 1889 during the administration of Benjamin Harrison. The tree was not, however, in the Executive Mansion. Mrs. Harrison, by one account, included nearly 5500 blossoming flowers in the decor for a holiday dinner.
The Victorians, by and large, were comfortably off, and their commodious homes often had central heating which opened up the whole house in a way not possible before. Great double doors opened from room to room, so the front parlor flowed into the back parlor into the music room, through to the dining room, and so to the orangerie. Such was the splendid Victorian setting for Christmas holiday celebrations.
The door to Christmas Past is open in the present at Washington's best known Victorian house, the Christian Heurich Memorial Mansion which rises majestically at 1307 New Hampshire Avenue NW. Now the home of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, the house is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Christian Heurich built his imposing mansion, in what is called the historical revival style, in 1892. It was completed in 1894 and reflected the artistry of architect John Granville Myers, decorator Huber of New York, August Grass, a German immigrant woodcarver who had his shop nearby, and an unknown painter who executed the home's elaborate ceiling murals.
The outside of the house is Romanesque Revival with some elements of Neo-Norman, but what might more properly be called late Victorian Rich.
Though lavish and much admired at the time, some elements of the exterior were hardly unique - the gargoyle for instance was standard in stone companies' catalogs. Inside, a music room with decorations of note, a bedroom replete with mural of a sleeping goddess, and a rustic basement "stube" for breakfast and card games attest to the era's ebullience.
For the Christmas season, Sunny O'Neil, who is a specialist in Victorian dried and pressed flowers (she did the arrangements for the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building 1876 exhibit and the Victorian tree this year at the Museum of History and Technology as well as the decorations in the recently opened Golden Booeymonger), has decorated the house in a manner befitting the period. There's a wreath for the knightly armor in the front hall, garlands for the minstrel's gallery, green grace notes behind the pictures, marzipan candies in silver compotes, oranges, apples and even exotic pineapples in epargnes.
Mrs. O'Neil thinks the house would have smelled of the spices of the Orient, from the puddings being baked. Tucked into the puddings being baked. Tucked into the puddings, or perhaps the cake, could be fortune-telling charms. You had to taste each bite carefully to tell your future: cloves for foolishness, gold ring for faithfulness, penny for wealth, thimble for patience and bean for wisdom.
There would be carolers on the streets, bundled up against the cold, to be welcomed in for grog and cranberry chains, ivy trained into tree and wreath shapes, bows and swags and festoons.
But that is imagination at work.
Christian Heurich's three children - Christian Heurich Jr., Carla Louise Heurich Harrison and Annette August Heurich Eckles - have clear and vibrant memories of their real Victorian Christmases.
Mrs. Eckles remembers:
"We usually had a Christmas tree in the conservatory. Visitors would come every day of Christmas week, I remember. Around the tree would be big dools, some almost three feet high. Mother put them out just for Christmas, only to look at. We weren't allowed to play with them any other time, and we were very careful even then. There was a teddy bear, too, at the bottom of the tree, and a cow that mooed when you turned its head.
"We hung our stockings at the fireplace in our bedroom. Mother would always put one of our presents in it.
Sometimes with an orange or an apple. Friends would send us candy from New York. But I never cared for candy, though mother thought that was strange and would try to get me to eat some. I still have my teeth now.
"I don't remember much about food, though I don't believe we had fruit as often as we do now. We could have cookies at our grandmothers house, where the Embers restaurant is now. Christmas dinner was for the family."
"There were two pianos on the second floor that the children used for practice. I even tried the violin. None of us were talented, though mother and daddy always went to the concerts. I don't remember the minstrel's gallery or the music room ever being used for chamber concerts, but then, maybe they did before I can remember."
No doubt Christmas was not so lavish nor the Victorian life so lush as it seems in nostalgia's memory, but it is satisfying to remember it as a time of grace, prosperity and plenty.
From ancient times, people burned bonfires on the tops of mountains to stay the sun in its flight of ever shortening days. In the dark of December, feasts warmed the stomach and comforted the spirit. Dances and games brought the sleep that shortened long nights. Holly bough and mistletoe, sacred to gods long supplanted, were brought into the house as a promise of spring. The star for the top of the tree was a reminder of the cold clear nights when the firmament seemed to come clear down to the tops of the tall fir trees.
In the dismal days of December, whe the snow covers the earth and the cold creeps into the corners of the soul, there is need for surfeit: too many decorations, too many second helpings. Too many dances, too much chocolate under the Christmas table. Too many kisses under the stairs. Too loud music. Too late evenings. Too much.
Twelve days of Christmas. Festivals for the sun. And then the days ever so slightly start to lengthen. The dark retreats, the light is bright enough. Spring will come.