Christmas Traditions at Neville House

Neville House Candlelight Tours Offer a Peek at the Past

Take a step back in time to an era where the holidays were more traditional and simple.

the home of John and Presley Neville that is a national historical landmark, offered candlelight tours on Sunday with living history on what the holidays were like for the gentry class of the late 18th century. It was a peaceful break from the bustle and bling of modern-day traditions.

The holiday season at that time was more of a religious tradition than a celebration like it is today. Christmas Day was reserved mainly for church services. The Nevilles were originally from Winchester, Va., and observed the holiday in the Southern-style tradition of entertaining and dancing. They would observe tradition from Christmas Day for 12 days until January 6, which was the peak of the celebration called Twelfth Night, spawning the popular carol, “The 12 days of Christmas”.

Entering the parlor, the house was decorated in a very simple manner with fresh greens and candles. Obvious by omission was the Christmas tree, which wasn’t popular in the Northeast until the mid 19th century. Rooms were lit with “grand illumination” which consisted of about four candles in areas where guests were being entertained.  “Candles were expensive and considered a commodity in this period,” said docent Harry Java.  Placing mirrors behind the candles was a technique used to increase the light in rooms.

The detached log kitchen was the busiest room in the house at the holidays, but the gentry class would not have spent much time there. A huge stone fireplace covered one wall where a kettle hung over the fire for cooking vegetables and meats. The baking oven was located outside. “The lady of the house would monitor the cooks and dispense the daily allotted amount of sugar and spices as they were very expensive and kept under lock and key,” said Java.

Members of Neville House Associates, the volunteer organization that runs and maintains the Woodville Plantation, prepared a traditional Twelfth Night Celebration Dinner and created a beautiful display similar to how it would have been done during that time. The table was laid out very symmetrically with meats and fish in opposite corners, four candles, and vegetables and jellies presented in a the rectangle shape of the table.

The menu consisted of traditional dishes including: mussels and trout that could have been caught fresh from Chartiers Creek, pork roast, cow’s tongue, forced asparagus, creamed spinach, beet pancakes, carrot puffs, German-style potatoes with beans and onions, forced cabbage stuffed with meat, candied ginger, pomegranate seeds, and a Twelfth Night cake, similar to fruitcake. The beverage of choice would likely have been a rum punch.  

Entertainment was very traditional and included classical piano and harp playing, singing, dancing the minuet, and socializing in the parlor. Laura Mason Lockhard, of Age of Antiquity, was peacefully playing the harp donning a regency dress she made to represent the couture of the 18th century. It was common for wealthy ladies to learn the harp or piano because they were instruments that didn’t distort the face.

The main bedroom was on the first floor and part of the tour, but wasn’t decorated for the holidays because bedrooms weren’t used to host guests. There weren’t any closets in homes constructed at that time because they were considered another room and raised the taxes on the property.

Outside the house, gunfire could be heard, which was tradition in that time on Twelfth Night, similar to our custom of making noise at the New Year. The wrap-around porch showed the construction of the house and grounds stacked with plenty of wood piles to heat the home during the winter. A traditional still house has been reconstructed on the property, indicative of what was once used to make whiskey.

A traditional Christmas at Woodville Plantation showed many customs still around today with simple celebrations amongst friends and family that always will be.  Woodville Plantation will be open through December 11th for tours, closing Dec. 12 through January 7, 2012.  More information can be found at www.woodvilleplantation.org.

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