The Newark Museum

Newark, NJ




Christmas in the Ballantine House: Feasting with Family and Friends

Step across the threshold of the Ballantine House, a National Historic Landmark, and back in time for a glimpse at the similarities and differences between seasonal celebrations then and now. With Christmas in the Ballantine House: Feasting with Family and Friends, the trappings and trimmings of a traditional Victorian holiday provide a taste of what it would be like to attend an open house tea on Christmas Eve in 1891, as well as an elaborate Christmas dinner with the Ballantine family. (left and right: Entrance Hall of the Ballantine House (c. 1885) decorated for the holidays)

Displayed from November 22 through January 2, 2001, the holiday installation has become a popular annual tradition. The restored 1885 Ballantine House, which offers two floors of period rooms and decorative arts galleries, is part of the Museum complex and open to the public year-round.

The festive atmosphere is resplendent with authentic Victorian decorations and evergreens that were popular during the period. The first occasion is a lavish Christmas Eve open house tea on the afternoon of December 24, 1891, set in the ornate gold-and-white parlor. In the room sits a tree resplendent in its collection of Victorian ornaments, including bright tin candle holders, with the family's gifts, wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red and green silk ribbons, piled underneath it. Here, the Ballantines would have welcomed their neighbors, offering tea and coffee in large silver urns, as well as an array of savory foods on fine silver and china serving dishes. (left and right: The Parlor of the Ballantine House (c. 1885) decorated for the holidays)

Special storybook panels enable visitors to "eavesdrop" on the servants as they discuss their own holiday plans and talk about the variety of guests expected to the open house -- the blocks surrounding the Ballantine mansion were home to Newark residents of diverse cultural backgrounds and economic situations. (left: Grand Staircase of the Ballantine House (c. 1885) decorated for the holidays)

The second installation reproduces the Ballantine family's elaborate Christmas dinner, circa 1891, which would have been served promptly at 1:30 p.m., the standard time for such affairs. The table is set for John and Jeannette Ballantine and their four children -- three boys and one girl, ranging in age from 13 to 24.

The mahogany-paneled dining room is decked lavishly for the holidays, with authentic Victorian decorations on the chandelier and ribbon streamers attached to wrapped holiday favors at each place setting. A monumental Christmas pudding garnishes the center of the table, and evergreens, especially holly, which was grown widely in New Jersey for this purpose, fill the room with holiday atmosphere. (left and right: Table Setting in the Ballantine House (c. 1885) decorated for the holidays)

Here, the seasonal storybook panel features McAllister, the butler, and Margaret, the waitress, discussing the family dinner in contrast to their own Christmas plans. As special as holidays were in the 1890s, servants still were necessary to make Christmas dinner possible for the Ballantines, and they would have had to adjust their own celebrations to suit the schedule of their employers.

The installation features historically accurate menus, and visitors may take home sample recipes for such de rigueur items as stewed oysters, fried celery and oven-browned Irish mashed potatoes. The menu and select recipes are reproduced on labels, and printed souvenir recipes are available as souvenirs for Museum visitors.

A new feature of the festive decor of the house is a lavish portiere made of holly garlands that spans the entrance hall. New Jersey was the main source of New York and Newark's holly for holiday decoration in the 19th century.

Read more about the Newark Museum in Resource Library Magazine

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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