Paca House comes alive in 300 years of tradition

Visitors can see how the other half celebrated Christmas

December 02, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Scotti Preston was a woman on a mission. Her job - to prepare a feast fit for royalty.

She prepared bass, candied ginger, mincemeat pies, a boar's head, oysters, pheasant, fresh churned butter and bread.

"This is the type of meal that the wealthy people who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries would have eaten," Preston said as she chipped chunks off of what looked like a mound of sugar.

Although the food she prepared was artificial, Preston plans to use the dishes as props to portray a character named Cook. Along with the widow of a Confederate soldier and a family of Unionists, Preston was slated to appear at an open house of an exhibit at the William Paca House in Annapolis.

Called the Three Centuries of Celebration, the exhibit highlights historical details of Christmas throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

"The house is going to come alive," said Alexandra Deutsch, who has been a curator for the Historic Annapolis Foundation for the past three years. "People will feel like they're time traveling. The exhibit is designed to give a sense of how the Christmas holiday evolved."

Built between 1763 and 1765, the William Paca House is one of America's most impressive restored 18th-century mansions and was one of the first five-part Georgian homes. William Paca was a lawyer who was one of four signers of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as well as governor of the state.

Using food, entertainment and Christmas traditions, the exhibit works up to 20th century customs.

In her Cook persona, Preston will talk about the types of foods that the wealthy ate, how they were prepared, and customs surrounding the interaction between the cook and the owners of the estates where they lived. She also plans to demonstrate how tools such as a clock jack - a contraption that turns meat as it cooks in the open hearth - work, she said.

The lifestyle aspect of the exhibit is most appealing, Preston said.

"Seeing life in the past makes people appreciate what they have today," she said.

Judi Jones focused her attention on holiday entertaining. In a room just a few doors away from the kitchen, Jones, an Annapolis resident, decorated three tables to create a gaming room.

"During Colonial times, they didn't celebrate Christmas the way we did," she said. "They played games and imbibed liquor."

The first table depicts a game called loo that is similar to bridge, and was popular in England from the 17th to the 19th century, Jones said.

"Loo was a simple game," Jones said. "But it was vicious in colonial times, because of the betting."

Another table is set up for a round of quadrille, a game started in France that is similar to solitaire, she said. And the third table is set for dominoes.

Out in the entryway and up the staircases, flowers from the garden were used as accent pieces. After she picked roses, Black-eyed Susans, hollyhocks, sea holly and marigolds in the summer, Mildred Sample, who has volunteered in the garden of the Paca house, for more than 20 years, made nosegays. Then she took the bundles of flowers home and dried them.

Recently, Sample brought the dried flowers back to the house and used them to make simple, elegant arrangements. Sample created arrangements that depict 18th and 19th century-style Christmas decorations, such as a simple garland attached to the staircase banister that included nosegays of dried flowers and white ribbon.

Tradition spreads

"People would have a swag here and there, but there was not too much decorating," said Sample, of Annapolis. "But then later, with the help of Colonial Williamsburg, the Colonial revival appeared, and decorations branched out to include fruit, nuts, and berries."

Down the hall from the game room, a Twelfth Night party scene that dates to 1799 is depicted, Deutsch said.

"When they had a celebration for the Twelfth Night in the 18th century, they celebrated it much more than we do now," she said.

To accurately show what a celebration might look like, a centerpiece was commissioned for the table in the room. Inspiration for the piece came from the old custom of creating sugar subtleties. The ornamental pieces, chiefly made of sugar or pastry, were eaten or used as table decorations at holiday feasts, she said.

The centerpiece, a replica of the Paca summer house, was designed and constructed by Henri Gadbois, a Houston artist who creates artificial foods for museum display. It was created to look like it was made entirely from sugar, Deutsch said.

In another room a Christmas tree, circa 1846, was inspired by Queen Victoria's family Christmas tree, Deutsch said. The tabletop tree was decorated with paper ornaments.

In contrast, Civil War era trees were sparsely decorated, she said.

"The Civil War period was bleak for a lot of families," she said. "The trees were simple, and decorated with things people had on hand ... cranberries, popcorn, pine cones and candles."

Stepped tree

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