Reviving a Victorian Christmas: 'They had more fun'

''People think that if you use lace and ribbons, you're being Victorian, but that's not true,'' says Sunny O'Neil, a Washington, D.C., Victoriana buff who does the 19th-century tree for the Smithsonian Institution each year. ''Victorian is really a mind-set,'' she believes, by which people ''used everything. They did lots of needlework, so they had plenty of scraps to make ornaments, sachets, watchcovers, slipper cases, that sort of thing.''

Mrs. O'Neil also bristles at the idea that the Victorians were the '' 'Upstairs, Downstairs' people. This was the first time in our history that we really had a solid middle class. A woman might have had a kitchen maid or someone to help with the laundry, but look at what they did! And with all the work they had in the days before vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, they still managed to have homemade presents hung on the tree.''

The trees Mrs. O'Neil decorates - for the Washington Victorian Society, Vice-President and Mrs. George Bush, and others - tend to be heavily hung affairs plastered in silk flowers, dressed paper dolls, pine cone Santas, sachets, toys, and countless other nonplastic ornaments.

To her, a heavy hand in decorating looks right. ''You don't have to do like the Victorians - running garlands of greens behind every picture and tying ribbons around the dining room table - but you should at least have a wreath in every window and something on the door,'' she believes.

Decorating used to take her two weeks to finish (''every room in the house had something''), but ''once you've done it,'' she says, ''it's easier to do it again; you already have a plan. And many of these decorations, like the miniature Christmas trees, are permanent - you just plop them on the table, and that's it.''

Decorating was just the beginning for the gregarious Victorians, for whom Christmas was a 12-day, extended family affair with parties, games, special foods, and treats. The tree was covered with presents for guests, and the dinner table might hold a ''bran pie'' - a dish filled with tiny packages and covered with bran, served up to the ensemble.

Charades was one of the most popular house party games, Mrs. O'Neil says, but her research into Victoriana has turned up records of candy-pulls, peanut hunts, soap-bubble parties, and a game for young adults called ''Literary Salad,'' where a bowl of lettuce-green tissue strips on which literary quotations were written was passed around. Partygoers took a ''helping'' and guessed at authors' names.

While reviving that game might prove singularly unsuccessful with today's young adults, reviving the Victorian manner of treating Christmas is worth it, Mrs. O'Neil thinks. ''They had Christmas like we do,'' she says, ''but they had more fun.''

In classes and workshops she teaches around the Washington area, she is ''constantly amazed by the number of working women - bank managers, computer analysts with young children - who come to do crafts.'' Putting their energy into these creations, she finds, is a productive escape. ''It's not like going out to lunch or a movie; you have something to show for it.'' These somethings, she says, can be used again ''year after year,'' to become part of the family's Christmas traditions.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.