Preparing the Great House for Winter

This past week we have been working on readying the Great House for not only our Christmas program (1774:  A Stratford Christmastide), but also setting up new room scenarios for the winter in general.  You’ve already heard about how I like to change the house displays for the seasons (like summertime scenarios), so the winter is no exception.  Here’s a glimpse into how I prepare for the winter scenarios and the Christmas program each year…

First, we decide on a theme for the Christmas program.  This year Jon Bachman, our Educational Events Coordinator, picked a year – 1774 – as the interpretive theme.  Having one particular year gave me a good starting point for deciding how to set up the house appropriately.  Then I took some time looking at Lee family papers (like the 1776 household inventory) and period accounts (like the diaries of planter Landon Carter and local schoolmaster Philip Vickers Fithian).  Pulling information from secondary sources came next (At Home and The Festive Tradition are two favorites).

I then spend a lot of time writing a memo (11 pages this year) to outline the stories I want to tell in each space.  The Blue Bedchamber, for instance, is set up loosely based on a diary entry of Landon Carter where he is taken ill with colic (abdominal pain and constipation) after eating a dinner of pork and oysters.  Carter describes taking a syrup of white walnut bark and molasses, and as a result goes “with ease to the close stool pan twice.”  The diary entry is a rather graphic description of his bathroom habits and we have a close stool (toilet) pulled out in the room along with a glass of the syrup sitting nearby to help interpret this.

The Dining Closet is set up with a hunt breakfast:  cold meat and vegetables, bread, hoecakes, and hot coffee.  Here we take the opportunity to talk about outdoor activities in the wintertime.  Did you know that included in the 1776 household inventory was a pair of snow shoes?  Well, fox hunting was a favorite pastime and you can see the gentleman eating breakfast here before their big hunt begins.  A couple of hats and a wool great coat lay nearby awaiting their departure.

Downstairs, a number of rooms help illustrate how the slaves and servants experienced the holiday season – some receiving gifts from their masters (coins and bottles of rum) and others with more work to do.  The holiday season was a time of merriment for the Virginia gentry, but for their household slaves and servants it was a busy season full of extra guests and fancy dinners and dances.  You see the Servants Hall set up as though some of the indentured and hired servants have been able to carve out a few free moments to enjoy some food and fellowship before being called to their next task.

That’s just a sneak peak of what we have going on in the Great House this holiday season.  Come see it all aglow on December 11th and throughout December, January, and February.

Landon Carter quote: Jack P. Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752-1778, II (Richmond, Va., 1987), p. 908.