A Peek Into Holidays Past

Holiday decorations can be just the thing to brighten a chilly winter night, and while many holiday traditions have roots from long ago, some are more recent and have local, European and American influences. Luckily your nearby museums are a great place to learn about our traditions and they may even provide some inspiration for your own holiday celebrations!

Ireland House in Burlington and the Oakville Museum have rich histories which date from the 1830s and span many family generations. Both will be decorated for the holidays in styles from various decades, which makes them great places to learn about the origins and establishment of various holiday traditions, such as greenery, kissing balls, Christmas trees, gifts, food, Christmas cards, and even Christmas lights.

The most popular Christmas decoration in most homes, the Christmas tree, originated in 16th century Germany but began to appear in North America after the example set at the British Court by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. Today, you can view early Victorian trees decked out in fancy paper, glistening angels, gilded apples, silver cornucopias, and wax candles, at both local museums. Trees from the 1890s onward grew larger with hand-cast lead and delicate, hand-blown glass ornaments. American retailer F.W. Woolworth first acquired the glass decorations from a German importer in 1880, and by 1890 was selling more than 200,000 annually! Curiously, a glass pickle would often be hidden somewhere on the tree, and the child who found it would have the honour of opening the first present. 

Brighter and safer than candles, the very first electric lights were installed in 1882 by Edward Johnson, VP for Thomas Edison, in his home in New York City. These caused a sensation among the wealthy and by 1901 lights were commercially available, but at a cost of a week’s wages for a working person. The use of electric lights didn’t become more common than candles until after 1925 when they had become more affordable. 

Currently, Ireland House is not open to the general public. However, the Museum is hosting a Victorian Christmas Tour & Treats event on December 3 & 4. Participants can tour the historic site to learn about the family and past Christmas traditions, and enjoy period sweets and drinks. 

The Oakville Museum will be decorated in grand period style, with decorations extending to the exterior and courtyard, and will include a new exhibit for the courtyard windows featuring charming dollhouses from the Museum’s collections. A special Christmas Tour will be offered on Sunday, December 12, where participants can delight in nostalgic toys and period ornaments. Additionally, a Craft and Tour program will run on December 28 & 30, where visitors are invited to make festive, museum-inspired crafts with their children

Local Links

Ireland House: museumsofburlington.ca

Oakville Museum: oakville.ca/museum

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