Dec 10, 2019 – A Victorian-era Christmas display at Point Ellice House. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Revisit Christmas past as Point Ellice House displays Victorian-era traditions

Antique bobbles, cards, decor and more are on display

The halls of Point Ellice House are lined with antique decor in celebration of the building’s 157th Christmas.

The Victorian era was a time when some of today’s Christmas traditions just started to come in vogue, such as Christmas crackers, Christmas cards, Christmas trees and even some of today’s favourite carols, but some other aspects have fallen from favour.

Golden walnuts, for example, were a highly popular Christmas bobble which people painted and stuffed with Christmas wishes before hanging on the tree. On Christmas day people would open the walnuts to see the message.

“They were basically like fortune cookies today,” explained Kelly Black, executive director of Point Ellice House. Visitors to Point Ellice House during the holidays can try to find the golden walnuts hidden around the house to win a prize.

ALSO READ: Victoria’s historic Point Ellice House re-opens after months of closure

The art of writing Christmas cards also emerged around this time, though the motifs were fairly different.

“Greeting cards became popular in the Victorian era, but the imagery we might be familiar with today wouldn’t have been popular,” Black said. “So we have Christmas cards and New Years cards that have cats and elephants instead of perhaps Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman.”

Other cards were hand painted with flowers and animals, or otherwise carried strange jokes. One card shows a man being kicked off of a sleigh by a horse into a pond, with a caption that wishes the reader a Merry Christmas.

Some classic Christmas items are out on display at Point Ellice House; Christmas cards were just becoming vogue in the Victorian era, and the ice skates were likely used down at the pond at Beacon Hill park. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Postage and paper were also very expensive at the time, so people often practised something known as crossed writing, where one portion of the letter would be written in one direction, then the paper would be turned 90 degrees and more of the letter would be written over top.

Many Christmas decorations came from nature around the house, including the harvest of fresh holly, sent across the country as gifts. Then owner Peter O’Reilly, Black said, sent a hand-picked bunch from his property to Agnes Macdonald, wife of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in 1889.

“Even little bits of Point Ellice House made their way across the country at Christmas time,” Black said.

ALSO READ: Point Ellice House exhibit offers new lens into colonial history

Christmas food was largely the same: mincemeat tarts, plum pudding, sausage stuffed turkey, shortbread cookies and more were often found at the table at the time.

“One of the neat things at Point Ellice House is we have extensive archives, so we have the O’Reilly’s family recipe collection,” Black said.

After Christmas dinner, popular activities included singing, playing music and reading from the new and highly popular works of Charles Dickens, including the Christmas Carol which was published in 1843.

Christmas presents were largely personalized and included things such as clothing and puzzles.

“A puzzle then was different than today,” Black said “They are essentially wooden blocks with different pictures or images pasted on every different side of the block.”

The O’Reilly’s were known to go shopping where many people continue to do holiday shopping: along Government and Fort streets for things like new clothes.

Point Ellice House is open for the holiday season Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. until Dec. 22. While touring the house, people can create their own decorations and purchase replica Christmas cards or scans of the recipes so they can try some Victorian-era versions of holiday favourites. For more information, visit pointellicehouse.com .

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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