A Very Victorian Thanksgiving

Most of us have grown up with the roasted turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and stuffing (jury is still undecided on the cranberry sauce.) But, where do many of these conventional Thanksgiving dinner items come from?

Your Retro Holidays: What might a Victorian Christmas have looked like?

Do you fall into the camp of those who think that Christmas traditions have been around forever? That gifts have been wrapped tidily beneath a fir tree twinkling with lights while tales of Ebenezer Scrooge are recounted?

If so, the following content may shock you. Reader discretion is advised.

The traditions of Christmas, including jingle bells, sleighs, reindeers, candy canes, and lit-up trees, are fairly new.

Another shocking fact: Sarah Lockwood Pardee, the mistress of Winchester Mystery House, was born before Rudolph. You know, that red-nose reindeer? That’s right. Although we can’t quite claim the young Sarah took her first breath before Santa (see timeline), we could make a strong case that she pre-dated the American image of him as a white-bearded man who resided in the North Pole, ho-ho-ho’ing through the frosty air.

Nobody was dreaming of a white Christmas—a song’s refrain made popular in the 1940s. No one was acting like a Scrooge till English author Charles Dickens published it—in the year 1843. Peace on Earth? Not so much. It would have to be found after the work day was over since technically Christmas wasn’t even a federal holiday till 1870.

Bah Humbug to a New Haven Victorian Christmas

Sure, December 25 has been a religious festivity since approximately the fourth century. But the accoutrements that we string, wrap, tie, and hang haven’t been.

In Sarah’s ancestral New Haven, Connecticut home, we can’t know for sure how the Pardees would have celebrated around 1840 when she was born. But since “Night Before Christmas” was published in 1823, we can presume Sarah would have been introduced to it by her four older siblings. And eventually she would have read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” espousing the Christian virtue of charity that some perceived was slowly fading as the industrial age pushed in.

A small evergreen might have stood on a table in the parlor, decorated with fruit, nuts and strings of popcorn or red berries. The Christmas tree was a phenomenon that began to hit American shores in the mid-1800s after the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book published an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children around a large tree decorated and lit by candles (later to be replaced by electric bulbs).

And toys …? Those creative pieces of plastic and other materials that kids write into their Santa wish list? Not really a thing till the late 19th century. And even then … made of cast-iron! Clunk.

One of the toy pioneers was Connecticut manufacturer J. & E. Stevens Company in the town of Cromwell—which is just 15 miles more or less from where the Pardees lived in New Haven.

Feliz Navidad

The widow’s move to the sunny lands of the Santa Clara Valley that, just four decades earlier, had been a Mexican territory known as Alta California would have been a pretty big switch: in weather, landscape, and in culture. The customs, however, had been imported by the many Easterners who have moved West in the 1800s. Nevertheless, the backdrop was different:

  • Winter rains instead of snow
  • Verdant green hills instead of brown ones blanketed in snow
  • Mexican and Spanish influences versus British and Dutch
  • Persimmons and dates instead of cranberries
  • 60 degree weather instead of 10 degrees

Gilded walnuts and almonds as well as citrus hung from trees, as they were all readily available California crops. The Santa Clara Valley itself was a land of orchards and the 44-year-old widow planted her own orchard as part of her California vision. Which means that marmalades would have been a big part of the holiday table. Traditional puddings were also more popular than they are today, such as plum pudding for Christmas.

One last mystery related to Christmas. When exactly did we start abbreviating it to “Xmas?” Data shows it happened before 1913, as evidenced by Sarah Winchester’s “Xmas list” below.

Photo Credit: History San Jose – https://historysanjose.pastperfectonline.com/archive/9E2A0609-4DE3-49C0-8D67-793473201847

Flashlight Tours Return this March

Back by popular demand, Winchester Mystery House will host its popular Flashlight Tour for one night only on Friday, March 13th, 2020. Tours will be available from 7:00 p.m. until midnight. During the Flashlight Tour, guests will be guided through the mansion while they hear unnerving stories of the home’s haunted history.

Journey Through the Beautiful & Bizarre Winchester Mystery House

Construction lasted for thirty-eight years on the Winchester Mystery House, one of North America’s most unusual and eccentric homes located in San Jose, California. Through the 160-room labyrinth-style mansion built by Sarah Pardee Winchester, there are many beautiful and extraordinary examples of the Queen-Anne Victorian Style architecture.

Everything Old is New Again

In early January of 2020, the Winchester Mystery House completed an eight-month restoration of one of the oldest rooms in Sarah Winchester’s San Jose mansion. Called the North Dining Room, it’s believed to be the original dining room of the modest farm house that Sarah bought when she moved to San Jose in the mid-1880s, and it forms the nucleus of what eventually became her 160-room “mystery house.”

Room Restoration Solves Riddle

A room restoration at the Winchester Mystery House revealed a 100-year-old secret. Where did Sarah Winchester acquire her stained glass windows? An envelope hidden and preserved in a wall for over a century reveals the answer.

Rumored Hauntings at the Estate

Ahead of the upcoming Friday the 13th Flashlight Tour on December 13th, 2019, where guests will have the opportunity to explore the house at nighttime with nothing but a flashlight, let’s delve into some of these ghostly visitations and the types of hauntings that they may represent.