Utica Exhibition Highlights Holiday Season

A mixture of greenery and finery marks the Victorian Yuletide celebration that opens in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art period rooms in Fountain Elms Friday, November 26 and remains on view through January 2, 2011. This annual exhibition brings to life an historical 19th-century Christmas and illustrates the origins of many of today’s Holiday customs.

This year, the dining room and parlor will be arranged to depict an evening party called a kettledrum. At this type of affair, somewhat of a predecessor to the 20th-century cocktail party, the dining table was set with a buffet of cold entrees, salads, fruit, cakes, and other sweets. Guests were served eggnog, tea, coffee, wine, and claret or champagne.

One author of etiquette books noted that at a kettledrum, an assortment of unmatching china should be used, which added to the festive appearance of the table. In keeping with all these traditions, the dining room will feature a bountiful table setting using all of the best crystal, silver, and china, and highlighted by an elaborate Yuletide centerpiece.

The Successful Housekeeper (1882) provides a detailed description of a kettledrum: “At a kettledrum, the time is passed in greeting friends, disconnected fragments of conversation, listening to music or recitations, and, best of all, in partaking of good cheer from the groaning refreshment table.”

After “partaking of good cheer,” a guest could retire to the parlor to enjoy music and the profuse Christmas decorations of greenery and a table-top tree. Despite the convivial gathering and abundant food and spirits, guests were expected to follow certain proprieties. The Successful Housekeeper also noted that: “[Women’s] bonnets are not discarded and only one hand is ungloved. The experienced guest hardly ever remains more than an hour.”

The Museum’s other period rooms will be adorned with various types of Christmas trees. The library will feature a German putz—a traditional miniature farm scene featuring buildings, animals, and figures. The Museum’s putz belonged to the Williams family, whose daughters, Rachel and Maria, grew up in Fountain Elms. The girls’ diaries from the 1860s record the simple gifts they received: books, cornucopias filled with candy, pens and journals, and paper dolls.

In the manner of our forebearers, the period rooms will be dressed with a variety of greenery, ribbon, wreaths, and flowers and with the beauty of autumn, which was harvested and laid aside for the bleak winter holidays. Nineteenth-century toys and games will be on display. All of the decorations that grace the period rooms are based on 19th-century accounts of how a home as grand as Fountain Elms would have been decorated for the Holiday season.

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