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A Historical Home for the Holidays

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

For many people, Christmas is a favorite time of year.  And for many good reasons – sparkling trees, shimmering lights in the winter darkness, hearing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” sung by a single chorister, favorite foods, and the excitement of Christmas morning.  No matter what it is that one most enjoys, the full effect is possible only with much preparation.  As the saying goes, there’s the rub.  Who hasn’t endured the annoyance of bumps on the head while hauling decorations from the attic, of the tree that keeps falling over, or the dish that just won’t come out right for the important dinner?  The point is that it’s easy to have something of a love-hate relationship with certain aspects of the season, if not an outright fear-and-loathing response to the impending holidays.  But who remembers the knuckles bruised while assembling toys and bicycles at 3:00 a.m. while surrounded by shrieks of joy just hours later?

That’s just Christmas on the domestic front.  For those with responsibilities to an institutional Christmas, there are added dimensions – of preparation, of annoyance, and of joy.

Having worked in historic house museums ever since leaving graduate school, I have faced my share of rooms, halls, and staircases that need a little Christmas.  Different houses, different time periods, various degrees of historic documentation and accuracy.  When the Indianapolis Museum of Art decided to cease using the former Lilly residence as its decorative arts galleries and interpret Oldfields as a residence of the American country place era, there were implications for what would happen at Christmas.  For years, museum volunteers, many associated with local garden clubs, collaborated in an extensive effort to decorate the house using many different kinds of materials – live, dried, and artificial.  These were beautiful decorations, created with much talent and effort.  With the house’s rooms serving as a group of galleries with different contents and interpretive themes, their overall concept did not have to be integrated.  When interpreted as a residence, it made sense to make Christmas decorations at Oldfields relate in some way to the presentation of the property as a country place-era residence.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

But how to do that?  The Lillys, prominent as they were in the community, had left almost nothing in the way of personal documentation or ephemera to describe day-to-day life at Oldfields – no letters, bills, inventories, or snapshot albums.   The scant anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lillys’ Oldfields was never lavishly decorated for the holidays, nor was it the center of a whirl of entertainments.  At this point enters the tension between historical accuracy and emotional impact.  Personal experience demonstrated that perfect historical accuracy in Christmas decoration, if visually sparse, leaves many people unsatisfied.  Unsatisfied visitors are unlikely to return.  We settled on using the popular periodicals of our interpretive time period – focusing on the 1930s and ‘40s – to provide inspiration for the decorations.  In this way, the decorations retain a relationship to our interpretive period but are not limited to inferences about what the Lilly family may have done.  Specific historical documentation could have been a severely limiting factor, but a change in focus offered latitude to explore many possibilities – and to provide a more satisfying experience.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

The magazines from which we draw ideas – House Beautiful, Arts and Decoration, and House and Garden, for example – suggest that Christmas decorations in the first half of the twentieth century were sometimes self-consciously traditional in character, and sometimes deliberately modern or unusual.  Having some of both helps enliven a visit to Oldfields.  Trees, wreaths, garlands, and bows were never out of fashion; the architectural rhythms of historically styled interiors like Oldfields’ provide the perfect setting for them.  Curiosities like upside-down trees or suspended transparent bowls overflowing with ornaments can be just unusual enough to signal that one is looking at another era’s notion of holiday décor.

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An upside-down Christmas tree was a big visitor favorite.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

We offer Christmas at Oldfields as a way to imagine the holidays in the decades just prior to the middle of the last century.  We hope that if offers delight, inspiration, respite, or, for anyone who finds more enjoyment in looking at decorations than in hanging them, an opportunity to see a decorated  house without having to go into the attic.

Filed under: Oldfields

2 Responses to “A Historical Home for the Holidays”

  • avatar
    Peg Says:

    Bradley, I’m afraid I just now got around to reading you blog, but it is wonderfully done. And, the house looks magnificent. Kudos!

  • avatar
    Ellen Says:

    Bradley,
    This article is wonderful! It is filled with strong doses of your wit, charm, expertise, and sensitivity. Terrific- EL

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