A House Where Ghosts Of Christmas Past Still Reside 18th-century Yuletide Exists In Annapolis

December 18, 1990|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Hot wassail simmers in a pot and a fire crackles in the hearth. Together, they sweetly spice the air in the colonial kitchen.

Upstairs, in the drawing room, hear the music of a pianoforte or a viola da gamba. See the wreaths on the doors and an elaborate yuletide setting on the Maryland federal banquet table in the dining room.

These are the images of an 18th-century Annapolis Christmas, as re-created each year in the historic Hammond-Harwood House. Well, a "fair amount" of license is taken, admits Barbara Allston Brand, of the Hammond-Harwood House Association.

"It's a 20th-century image of an 18th-century Christmas. It's more elaborate. Yes, holly was brought in to deck the halls, but that was only for the 12 days of Christmas," Brand says. The holly goes up early to accommodate the tourists looking for some Christmas spirit, colonial-style.

Still, the house is a history lesson, especially at Christmas.

In the golden age of Annapolis, from about 1760 to 1775, winter was a time when plantation owners and their families could put aside worries for their fields and enjoy some leisure time, Brand says.

"This was a perfect chance for families to come to Annapolis," she said.

The plays, the taverns and the inns were big draws. Also, winter was a time for grand social occasions such as balls and weddings.

In the middle of all this social flitting, came Christmas. Brand says, "Today Christmas is the excuse for the parties. It wasn't that way in the 18th century."

But that's not to say Christmas wasn't celebrated in style, at least not at the Hammond-Harwood House on Maryland Avenue. The house, a national historic landmark, is considered an example of American Georgian architecture at its finest.

Designed by architect William Buckland for Mathias Hammond, a lawyer and planter, the house has been preserved as a museum to 18th-century good life, filled with elegant pieces. In the dining room, lighted by a "gib" window which opens as a door, there is a Baltimore sideboard. In the second-floor drawing room, see an 1806 pianoforte, a pie crust tea table and a silver rococo London tea kettle.

In the game room four English Chippendale chairs -- with ball and claw feet -- surround an English gaming table with heavy carving and hairy paw feet. In the parlor night chambers there are a high boy and a Hepplewhite four-poster bed made in Baltimore. A Sheraton breakfront secretary's desk dominates the library chambers.

Portraits by Charles Willson Peale adorn the walls and, the Christmas decorations are, of course, a throwback to centuries past. For example, a wreath is decorated with oyster shells.

The house was opened for two days last weekend for the Christmas celebration. Costumed women led the Christmas tours, describing the rooms and answering questions.

One guide, Ronnie Carr -- also known as Mrs. Thomas Carr -- is a member of the association's board of trustees. Asked why she is involved in the celebration, she can say only, "I love the house. I love it. It's the most beautiful Georgian house."

The Christmas celebrations go back more than three decades at the house.

Planning for the event begins in March; it takes a week to set everything up. More than 200 volunteers and 15 area garden clubs are involved. About 1,000 visitors will pass through, and many will spend money at the gift shop on items such as kissing balls and "tussy-mussies."

What is a tussy-mussy? It's a small bouquet of dried herbs and flowers carried by colonial women -- often tucked into their sleeve -- for a breath of fresher air when walking streets smelling of sewage or when encountering unwashed people.

You don't need a tussy-mussy in the Hammond-Harwood House's brick-floor kitchen. Now and then, the smoke from the hearth trails into the room.

And, oh, how it blends with the steam from the hot wassail, a spiced cider with orange and lemon juice. The wassail is served with cookies from a Pennsylvania tavern table, just like it might have been during the golden age of Annapolis.

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