Traditions of the season

Yule: The Carroll County Farm Museum looks at origins of Christmas customs and practices for its holiday-tour event.

December 05, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Christmas tree that dominates the parlor at the Carroll County Farm Museum is decorated with tiny wax candles, candy canes and angel figurines. And, hidden among the branches, a pickle.

The pickle, made of vivid green, dimpled blown glass, hangs there in keeping with an old German custom. The tradition was unearthed by the museum staff, which researched arcane Yuletide practices and decorated for the Westminster landmark's annual holiday tour accordingly.

Which also would explain the miniature "tree" made of feathers.

The tour, dubbed "Origins of Christmas Traditions," begins today and continues through this weekend and next at the museum at 500 S. Center St. Expecting about 2,500 visitors during the run, the museum's staff and volunteers have been decorating the stately brick farmhouse for weeks, attending to every detail.

Holly sprigs adorn the bedposts, following in the ancient Druid belief that the greenery would bring pleasant dreams. Most people know that the mistletoe ball hanging in the foyer is an invitation to a kiss, but in Scandinavian countries the plant is posted in doorways as a holiday pledge of peace.

Other scenes are inspired by memories of Carroll seniors. Shoeboxes, wrapped in bright paper, await filling with small gifts. Several of the Christmas trees throughout the museum carry the "good luck" of a bird's nest.

And some stockings hung by the fireplace hold oranges. This year's tour pays homage to George A. Grier, a founder of the museum, who died last year.

Grier's recollections of childhood Yule celebrations mentioned few toys. But his parents always left an orange in his stocking, meant to symbolize a pot of gold.

Every room at the museum has a card detailing traditions described by members of the North Carroll Senior Center.

"There were so many good stories," said Lorraine Riley, a museum volunteer. "We really got people talking."

Rosemary Stem recalled baking at least 15 kinds of cookies and arranging them in colorful boxes for the mailman and the minister. Jeannette Budusky remembered trips to Lexington Market in Baltimore to buy fresh coconuts for cake. She also described the "in" present in the 1930s.

"Everyone got roller skates, and the best ones were from Union Hardware," said Budusky, a Hampstead resident. "I met my husband on skates."

Dottie Freeman, museum administrator, found a pair stored in her home and lent them to the parlor display.

To gather inspiration for the displays featuring the lesser known, international customs, museum staff members combed the Internet and researched their archives. They found folk tales, recipes and descriptions of homemade decorations.

"People often decorated with what they had," said Freeman.

Often, that was fruit, cookies, popcorn, even oyster shells. To achieve the seasonal, frosty look for decorations at the museum, twigs, leaves and pine cones were dipped in wax. Greens were gathered from the museum grounds, and a few weeds made their way into floral arrangements - one in a moose's antlers.

In the museum kitchen, a swag of greenery is filled with oranges and plaid flannel bows. Slices of dried fruit line the hearth.

The small feather trees were assembled by hand following a technique that probably dates to the 17th century. Legend has it that Germans, with their forests depleted, fashioned goose and turkey feathers into the world's first artificial trees.

The museum used old patterns, trimmed and dyed the feathers and then wrapped them around wire to resemble branches. The tiniest feather trees fit neatly inside thread spools.

The practice of hanging a pickle on a Christmas tree stems from a folk tale of young travelers robbed of their possessions and stuffed into a pickle barrel until St. Nicholas rescued them. When the boys made it home for Christmas, they insisted on hanging a pickle on the tree.

They promised an extra present to the first person who saw it, and the tradition was born.

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