Melodies and Memories New Victorian Yuletide Exhibition Celebrates Christmas Carols

November 27, 2015 - January 3, 2016

Festive music and comforting familiar Christmas carols are holiday traditions. This year the Museum of Art’s annual Victorian Yuletide exhibition, opening in the Fountain Elms period rooms November 27, celebrates 19th-century music and melodies.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us.”

While the melody for O Tannenbaum is based on traditional folk music, German Ernst Anschutz wrote the modern lyrics in 1824. The words acknowledge the evolution of the Christmas tree as the central holiday decoration. Set for a family gathering and music recital, the parlor period room will feature a floor-to-ceiling tree adorned with glistening strands of antique German glass beads, a nod to the origins of O Tannenbaum and to the many Christmas customs with German origins. No Christmas tree would be complete without presents scattered below. The Museum of Art’s delightful toy collection—featuring colorful doll china, a model stove, dolls, and many cherished toys once owned by Rachel and Maria Williams—will be on view.

Surprisingly, not all households featured Christmas trees. Instead many families, including the Williams family of Fountain Elms, enjoyed large public Christmas trees. One early 20th-century version of a public Christmas tree is a craftily fashioned Bethlehem tree. The Museum has carefully recreated this gift-bearing tree in celebration of O Little Town of Bethlehem, a carol that originated in 1865. Each star-shaped section of the holly-trimmed tree on view in the bedroom will be laden with cherished gifts.

Today’s American Christmas customs and carols are a mixture of many adopted from European countries. The Holly and the Ivy, a traditional British folk carol published around 1814, symbolizes Victorian-era homes that were excessively draped in swags of both plants during the holiday season.

Holly and ivy arches crisscross the elaborately set dining table in Fountain Elms this season and accent the colorful porcelain, fine crystal glasses and Tiffany silver that grace the table.

“We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring To you and your kin…”

The origin of these familiar lyrics lies in the English tradition of holiday wassailing. Groups of young men, a tankard in hand, traveled from house to house singing. When invited inside, the revelers drank spiced ale to the health of the hosts and demanded “figgy pudding.” The Fountain Elms library is ready to receive carolers and reward them with sweet treats and beverages for their good cheer.

Enjoy the cheerful celebrations of the festive season, explore the fascinating history of today’s Christmas customs, and view the extravagant installations during a visit to the Museum’s period rooms over the holidays.

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New York State Council on the Arts with the support of
Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.