It’s almost Christmas, and at Billings Farm, we’re looking back at our favorite New England holiday traditions and D.I.Y. Christmas projects from the late 1800s–from homemade decorations to gifts you might find surprising. Celebrating Christmas is a relatively recent phenomenon and like most New England states, Vermonters did not widely enjoy the holiday until late in the 19th century. Indeed, it was not until 1890, the same year that the farmhouse at Billings Farm was completed, that Christmas became officially recognized as a holiday nation-wide.
At that time, celebrations were much simpler than they are today, especially in rural communities like Woodstock. Farm families enjoyed the holiday, but still had cows to milk, ice to cut, and wood to saw. A few gifts, a special meal, and the gathering of friends were high points in an otherwise typical day.
Decorations of the period were usually made at home from easy to find materials: fresh greens were draped over mantels, windows, and doorways throughout the house. Small trees, packed in a jar or butter tub that stood on a table top were common. Many of the ornaments reflected an agricultural tradition, including strands of cranberries, popcorn, or dried apples that circled the tree. Apples or oranges (considered exotic fruits) studded with cloves, silvered (foil-covered) chestnuts, painted pine cones and acorns, all complemented the handmade paper ornaments that adorned the tree.
In Woodstock, turn-of-the-century businesses advertised their wares for Christmas in the local newspapers. Nearly all were useful domestic items: fabric, clothing, umbrellas, linens, crockery, and carpet sweeps. For those with a leaner budget, homemade, hand-crafted items were the most common gifts given on Christmas Day, and included fancy hand-knitted mittens, satin bows, and stockings filled with candies, nuts, and raisins.
Below you’ll find three great Do-It-Yourself Projects to brighten the holidays, from Christmas Crackers, to Pomander Ornaments, and a unique Jack Horner Pie.
1. Crackers: Victorian table ornaments
Paper crackers were common in Victorian celebrations and used as Christmas table decorations and are still used widely in the United Kingdom. A small gift or trinket and a printed verse, motto, or joke were hidden inside; when the cracker was pulled apart by two revelers, whoever came away with most of it, got the prize.
To make your own cracker, you’ll need a paper towel/toilet paper roll, tissue paper, scissors, holiday stickers, ribbon, trinkets—toys and/or small candies—and blank paper for verse or motto.
1. Insert trinkets and verse/motto/joke into the tube, then wrap each tube with a square of tissue paper, leaving the ends longer than the tube.
2. Twist paper at ends.
3. Ends may be tied with ribbon to hold the items inside.
4. Put a sticker on the edge of paper to hold it around the tube.
2. Pomander Tree Ornament
Still commonplace today, pomanders, (oranges studded with cloves and hung from the Christmas tree) were originally used as an accessory during the late-middle ages. Carried to protect against infection and disease and used to mask bad odors, the name comes from the French pomme d’ambre, i.e. apple of amber, as the orange was often substituted for ambergris, a solid waxy substance produced in the digestive systems of sperm whales and highly valued by perfumers.
Pomanders are easy to make, so follow our step-by-step guide if you’re looking for a simple D.I.Y.Christmas project. All you’re going to need is an orange or tangerine, a length of yarn, and a handful of cloves. Although you’re free to add as many cloves as you’d like, we prefer the 1890s approach and use as few as possible, because they were considered luxury items (as were oranges).
1. Place two cloves together in the indent at the bottom of the orange.
2. Turn the orange over and place two more cloves next to the calix (where the stem was attached).
3. Wrap the yarn between the bottom two cloves using a simple loop.
4. Repeat on the top of the orange, making sure to change the direction of the yarn so that the orange is quartered. Also, make sure to leave a length of yarn free for hanging.
5. Stud the orange with cloves–and feel free to design your own pattern.
3. Jack Horner Pie
Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating a Christmas pie; he put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I!’
Though many readers may be familiar with the children’s nursery rhyme Little Jack Horner, first compiled in 1725, it’s less likely that you’ve heard of the unique holiday tradition that goes with it. A staple in many Victorian homes during the 1890s, the Jack Horner Pie is a filling-less pie that would have been placed on the table during Christmas dinner and contained a variety of small gifts hidden inside. Novelties and useful items were popular, including thimbles, fans, marbles, and handmade figurines (see below).
Each gift was tied to a long ribbon protruding from the edge of the pie. At the end of the meal, each child in the family would take turns picking one of the ribbons and on a signal, would yank their presents free (hence: He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum).
Although this tradition has been largely forgotten today, it’s a great addition to the holiday feast, although the pie itself can take up to seven hours to make!