Learning the history of Christmas at the Leffingwell House
Norwich ― It was either a jolly good time or a silent night at the Leffingwell House Musuem on Sunday afternoon, depending on which room you happened to be in.
Sunday was the museum’s annual “Christmas in the Colonies” event, the last event for the museum in 2022. Each room on the house’s main floor was decorated to the standards of various time periods. From the outlawed celebrations in the 1600s to Christmas as we know it in the 19th century, guests got to experience all varieties of colonial Christmases.
The Society of the Founders of Norwich owns and operates the Leffingwell House at 348 Washington St., and its president, Dayne Rugh, said the Christmas event has been held in its current state for at least the last eight years. Rugh said it’s an important event to show not just how Christmas is celebrated, but why.
“It’s important because we have celebrated these traditions for not just decades, but for centuries, and thousands of years actually,” Rugh said. “These traditions, specifically to Christmas, date back to ancient times. ... There’s a reason behind everything.”
After paying the $5 admission, guests are greeted by the Tavern Room to their immediate right. The room was one of the two original rooms in the 1675 home, before additions in 1701 and 1776. Though it’s the Christmas season, there does not appear to be much of a party. The simple snacks and documents around the room represent the large absence of Christmas in the 1600s, largely connected to pagan traditions.
Not only was the holiday outlawed, there were provisions in place to fine anyone who was caught celebrating Christmas.
“Christmastime in New England looked a lot different than other parts of the country,” Rugh said. “We didn’t celebrate Christmas in Puritan New England for a long, long time.”
Step across the hall and you’ll start to see the beginnings of the traditional Christmas holiday. In the Washington Parlor, you’ll find George and Martha Washington explaining their ways of celebrating to guests. The parlor represents the Virginian Christmas that the Washingtons knew, with fruit cake, Martha’s “Rum Punch” and George’s special eggnog recipe. You’ll even find holly around the base of candles and a mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.
The Washingtons explained how they would celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas over the last six days of December and the first six days of the New Year. They would have feasts and balls and fox hunts with friends and family. But by Jan. 7, it was back to work.
“As you go through each room here, you start to see how those restrictions start to become a bit relaxed as populations change and as the demographics of country begin to change, so do our traditions and mindsets,” Rugh said.
Moving to the back portion of the home to the colonial keeping room, guests can feel the Christmas spirit. There are Christmas trees decorated, a table of cookies and hot cider, and a roaring fire while visitors can learn fun facts about the holiday.
While some may know that Santa originated with the Dutch and the Germans, and Christmas trees came from German traditions, many likely don’t know about Krampus.
A German tradition, Krampus was the opposite of Santa and the tradition involved a group of young men who would receive letters from parents about the bad things their child had done. The group would dress up in masks, go to the various homes and terrorize the children for their behavior.
Guests can also learn fun facts like how gingerbread men came from Elizabeth I and that the first department store Santa was in Massachusetts in 1890, though Macy’s claims they did it first in 1862. And did you know Martin Luther was the first person to put a lit candle on a Christmas tree?
“It’s really an amalgamation of tradition that immigrants and immigrant families brought over here that make Christmas what we’re familiar with today,” Rugh said.
The West Parlor was a Christmas party. Rugh was dressed in red and green and playing Christmas carols on the piano while visitors could purchase vintage and handmade ornaments. There were other goodies for sale too, like locally grown catnip and herbs from the society’s garden.
Downstairs had some local vendors, including Robert Lecce’s chocolate stand. Lecce, a member of the Society of Founders of Norwich, makes colonial-style chocolate in bars and was making hot chocolate for guests to sample and purchase.
The upstairs portion of the home was open to guests as part of the regular museum but was not included in the Christmas event.
“That’s what you see when you come through this house,” Rugh said. “You get to see that evolution. You get to talk with people that can bring you back in time a little bit.”
Visitors Chas Frick and Elizabeth Tomko from Norwich enjoyed speaking with the volunteers and seasonal workers who dressed up for the event.
“It’s good to see their perspective and just hear some of the stories,” Frick said.
The married couple said they have visited the museum before, but not at Christmastime. So when they saw the post on the museum’s Facebook page, they knew they had to attend.
Tomko, who said she enjoys American history, was not aware of the lack of Christmas celebrations in the 1600s but enjoyed feeling like she was there in a 19th century Christmas.
“It’s nice to just walk through and see stuff, but if you like to eat the cookies of the period, it makes it a little more real, Tomko said.