Each holiday season, owners of heritage homes who pay particular attention to preserving their house’s historical aesthetic face a difficult decision. They must decide between decorating their homes in a historically authentic manner, and choosing a more modern approach.
In Heritage Home Canada’s series on historically accurate holiday decorations, the magazine presents a how-to guide to interior decorators keen on capturing an era in their homes. In part one, the focus is on the dos and don’ts of Victorian-era decorations.
Step 1 – The Christmas Tree
In Canada, the tradition of bringing evergreen trees into the home for the holidays became popular during the Victorian era. While in the U.K., Victoria’s husband, Albert, is credited with popularizing the Christmas tree, in Canada credit must go to the many German immigrants who had come to the country in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Unlike trees of later eras, Victorian trees were lighted with candles. While beautiful, these open flames could only be lit for short periods. Even so, more than one family saw their yule tree turn into a yule log as a result. While brave home owners may wish to try to replicate this tradition, here is one area where historical realism might be best set aside.
As far as decorations go, Victorians favored ornate, tear-shaped baubles over the round orbs more familiar to modern eyes. Often decorated with images of snow-covered towns or church steeples, these baubles tended to be coloured white, blue and plum, rather than the more modern red and gold.
In lieu of traditional tinsel, Victorians often wrapped long ribbons of lace across the tree, and dangled burnished tin plates to capture ambient light. Bows of heavier velvets were also placed across the tree.
Step 2 – Interior decorations
For many new Canadians who came to Canada during the Victorian era, finding traditional Christmas decorations was difficult. In Europe, houses were filled with boughs of holly and mistletoe–both of which remain green throughout the winter. In Canada, neither plant was quite as readily available.
In lieu of holly and mistletoe, New World Victorians would choose native plants with similar qualities. Catberry, wintergreen, dogberry and juniper cuttings would be placed around the house. The two areas which received the most attention in most homes would be the mantelpiece over the fireplace, and the dining table.
Victorian women would often spend hours turning clippings of plants collected by their children into ornate dining table decorations.
Step 3- Exterior decorations
Outside of the home, Victorian Christmas decorations were kept quite simple. Without electrical lights, Victorians tended to hand long evergreen boughs in areas which might, today, glow with icicle lights. These boughs would be fastened with bows of hearty, colourful materials–often velvets.