Home & Garden

Museum displays show Christmas' evolution

Kentucky Christmas celebrations have evolved from a simple frontier gathering, to the beauty of Victorian-era finery and the co-existence of the important religious day and some well-decorated secular festivities.

Here is a collection of offerings at local museums that offer some insight.

Headley-Whitney Museum

George Headley III returned to his Lexington roots at La Belle farm after establishing a career as a jewelry designer in New York City and becoming owner of a boutique at Hotel Bel-Air in Hollywood in the late 1940s.

A world traveler and artist, his creativity found expression in bibelots, or small jeweled pieces for display, in which he incorporated exotic figurines, rare gems, precious metals and carvings.

Among his legacy of treasures at the Headley-Whitney Museum is a Madonna and Child bibelot, which captures the essence of the Nativity, with its Italian inscription, translated to read, "Your lips are suffused with grace; for that reason God has blessed you forever."

Created in the 1960s, the piece is based on an original work by Spanish artist Bartolomé Murillo. It's re-created on ivory by Italian miniaturist Ferrante Portaluppi. Jeweler Romolo Grassi of Milan realized Headley's design atop a tiger eye base, surrounded by climbing vines of gold and enameled leaves.

When you visit the museum, be sure to also see the companion piece, a miniature of Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Lexington History Museum

The holiday display, assembled and researched by curator Debra Watkins, reveals a surprising set of customs for much of the 19th century.

Traditions of the 1800s included hunting, games, visiting friends, giving gifts to children and the needy, dances, and quite a bit of noisemaking. Fireworks, gunshots, and tin horns were cause for concern by some and great fun by others.

In 1884, a warning was published in the Transcript newspaper: "The police have instructions to arrest and prosecute every person firing guns, pistols and shooting crackers, or blowing horns through the holiday."

The tradition continued, but toward the end of the 1800s, the rise of ornate Victorian decorations, displays of Christmas trees, Santa Claus characters and retail commercialization began to dominate the holiday cheer.

Newspapers encouraged children to write letters to Santa and urged readers to pay attention to retailers' offers. Memories from the 1900s are the foundation on which our current celebrations were built.

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

Curator Eric Brooks says statesman Henry Clay was often absent on Christmas, instead being at work in the Senate in Washington, D.C. Two books from the estate's collection reflect his causes.

One, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, is reminiscent of Clay's official meeting with Dickens when Dickens visited Congress in 1842, a year before the book was released.

Dickens was experiencing life in America firsthand and was on a campaign to promote the adoption of international copyright laws that would prevent U.S. publishers from pirating his work.

Not only did the situation hurt Dickens, it prevented American authors from being published more because of the added cost of paying them for their work.

Another novel in the collection, Christmas in Kentucky 1862 by Elizabeth Bryant Johnston, brings more political leanings to Ashland's holiday history by portraying Civil War history and slavery.

See for yourself: Ashland will be open for a candlelight tour with live entertainment and refreshments from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $15.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill

Shakers kept their Christmas celebrations sacred and simple. If you catch one of the village's December teas, you will find a tree harvested on the Pleasant Hill property and decorated with handmade, utilitarian items such as paper chains, and popcorn.

Education coordinator Susan Hughes explained, "The Shaker worship was of a spiritual nature, which fit well and early with the celebration of Christmas."

A list of "millennial laws," first compiled in 1821, sets the tone: "Believers should make perfect reconciliation one with another, and leave all grudges, hard feelings and disaffections one toward another, eternally behind on this day," it reads, adding reminders to gift the poor with garments and goods, and to keep the day sacred by doing only necessary work and attending services.

Singing was, and still is, one of the joys of Shaker life. According to Donna Phillips, who directs the music programs at the village, carols written by Kentucky Shakers include This Is Jesus' Birthday from 1854 and While Once in Judah's Lovely Land, written in 1815 by Elder John Dunlavy.

Phillips notes that "The themes represented in the songs reflect Shaker ideology: the Nativity of Jesus, purity, hope, spiritual gifts, music, angels and brotherly love. Some of the verse: "Sing and make a glad sound, melody is cheering,/ Everyone can dance 'round, nothing interfering./ Every faithful soldier has a right to Christmas."

Phillips invites singers to join the Pleasant Hill Singers, a volunteer group that performs for special occasions in the 1820 Meeting House where Shaker songs were sung for more than 100 years. You don't need to audition or be a trained singer, but simply to carry a tune. To learn more about joining the group, contact Phillips at (859) 734-5411, Ext. 115 or donna@shakervillageky.org, or you can befriend the group on Facebook.