Victorian Christmas traditions come to life at Presque Isle Historical Society

6 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Visitors to the 1875 Vera Estey House Museum this past weekend took a trip back in time to the Victorian era while learning about how many of their favorite holiday traditions originated.

The Estey House, located on 16 Third St. in Presque Isle, was built in 1875 and was where Vera Estey grew up during the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901 while Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain. After her death at age 98 in the 1980s, Vera donated her family’s home to the Presque Isle Historical Society, which has since hosted numerous events there, including the Victorian Christmas at the Estey.

Vera’s father, John Estey, was a businessman, and Vera would showcase her family’s wealth by taking up many hobbies that were expected of Victorian women, such as embroidery, painting and playing a musical instrument.

“Vera and her mother painted the pictures that you see here,” said Kim Smith, Presque Isle Historical Society board member and event coordinator, as she spoke to guests in the downstairs dining room on Friday evening. “Victorian women were considered to be ‘refined women’ and had more expectations than just taking care of the home and children.”

During the third annual holiday-themed, self-guided tours of the Estey house, visitors also learned of both the typical and more unusual aspects of Victorian Christmases. As volunteers — dressed in traditional Victorian dresses — strung popcorn on a string for tree decorations, guests to the home walked into the middle parlor where this year’s theme for the room was “Creepy Christmas.”

Smith explained that not all Victorian Christmas cards had beautiful photos of snow-covered trees, carolers or a city street shining with decorations and lights. Many Victorians combined typical holiday greetings with an unusually dark sense of humor.

“Not all the cards were like Currier and Ives. You can see this card, for example, has a frog stabbing another frog and the phrase ‘Have a Hearty Christmas,’” Smith said. “And another has the photo of a man about to be hanged in the gallows with the phrase ‘Happy Christmas.’”

Upstairs in Vera’s childhood bedroom guests not only viewed her infant and high school photographs, original wooden toys and children’s books but also learned about how feather trees became the first known artificial Christmas trees during the Victorian era.

In Germany, deforestation was becoming a widespread problem that negatively impacted the growth of evergreen trees and so instead of cutting down trees people constructed their own out of goose feathers that they dyed green. The tradition of artificial Christmas trees did not become popular in the United States until 1913 when Sears department stores featured the trees in their mail-order catalogs. The trend declined again until the 1950s when stores began selling aluminum Christmas trees.

Learning about the various Victorian holiday traditions is one of many reasons why Barbara Pierce of Bridgewater brought her 10-year-old granddaughter Victoria McCrum of Mars Hill to the Victorian Christmas at the Estey for the first time on Friday evening.

“I’ve been wanting to come since they started doing the Christmas tours and thought it would be a good history lesson for Victoria,” Pierce said.

McCrum said she was most surprised to learn that Victorian women had to wear black clothing for three years after their husband died and that during the winter they wore hand muffs made of monkey fur. That latter trend started after Queen Victoria brought the fur back from a trip to India, which was ruled by England during the Victorian era.

“I think it would be cool to live back then. They got to use their hair to make stuff,” McCrum said, referring to the Victorian women’s tradition of making “hair wreaths” out of real strands of hair to honor loved ones after they passed away.

Sherry Haines of Presque Isle also visited the Estey House on Friday and remarked that the Victorian architecture, original furniture and elaborate hats reminded her of similar objects that her grandmother, who grew up during that era.

“Everything here reminds me of her,” Haines said. “It’s a beautiful home.”

The Presque Isle Historical Society began hosting the Victorian Christmas at the Estey in 2016. Smith stated that though the event always has featured costumed volunteers in each room the society tries to showcase various Victorian traditions, both holiday-related and otherwise, to make the tours just as exciting as the previous years.

A second night of the tours was held on Saturday.

This year the society also hosted an event at the Aroostook Centre Mall in which guests viewed Victorian artifacts and learned of holiday traditions from that era. After singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and listened to a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” visitors tasked figgie pudding and sugar plums, treats that are featured in the song and the story, and even created their own Victorian Christmas tree ornaments.

By keeping the event fresh with new exhibits, decorations and people every year, we hope to encourage visitors to come back and make it part of their holiday traditions,” Smith said.