Savannah’s Davenport House Museum Celebrates an 1820s Holiday with Candlelight Tours
These days, Christmas can feel like a month-long deluge of rabid shopping, company parties and incessant holiday music. It is easy to forget that there was a time in America when Christmas was a quieter affair.
Savannah’s historic Davenport House Museum is offering Holiday Evening Tours from Dec. 26-30 that serve as a reminder that holiday celebrations have changed considerably in the past 200 years.
The Davenport house was built in 1820 and the museum’s mission is to preserve its history and interpret how the Davenport family may have lived in the home.
“Christmas was a pious day of reflection and these people were Presbyterian, so they probably didn’t keep Christmas,” explains Jamie Credle, director of the Davenport House Museum. “We celebrate New Year’s here.”
There was no Santa, greeting cards or heaps of gifts piled under a tree. So while Christmas may not have been a big deal for the Davenports, New Year’s Eve still offered plenty of opportunity for merriment and traditions with dancing, eating, drinking and visiting. Docents in period costume will be located in each room of the house, providing guests a glimpse of how the holidays were celebrated hundreds of years ago.
The entrance hall, for example, has a rifle leaning next to the front door. Isaiah Davenport may have partaken in the regional custom of shooting his gun into the air on Christmas and New Year’s — some traditions die hard in American homes even today.
The “first footer” is another tradition from the period. The first person to cross the threshold in the new year was symbolic of how the year would go. Old women and fair-haired men were considered unlucky. “If you could find a dark-haired young man to cross your threshold first, that would bring good luck for the new year,” says Credle.
The Davenports hail from Scotland, so during the tour, visitors to the drawing room will sing one of Scotland’s most famous traditional songs, “Auld Lang Syne.” New Year’s was a big holiday in Scotland, but Christmas wasn’t recognized there in the Davenports’ time.
Isaiah Davenport’s office features a table displaying gifts that may have been offered to enslaved domestic servants, including tobacco, sugar cane, spirits and money. Although plantation slaves may have been given time off during the holidays, urban workers would have to work twice as hard making sure the home was prepared for lavish meals and celebrations.
One of the highlights of the tour is a dramatic presentation in one of the private rooms. An elderly man gives his niece a gift and when they look at the newspaper that wraps the present, they discover a poem — “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, first published in 1822. The 1820s saw the beginning of new traditions and the commercialization of Christmas as the holiday becoming more child-centered.
“We want people to understand that Christmas has evolved and ”Twas the Night before Christmas’ was a benchmark for what Christmas is today,” says Credle.
The candlelight tour is capped off with shortbread and cider in the beautiful garden, along with a demonstration of early 19th-century dancing in the pharmacy behind the Davenport house. Visitors can tour the home any time between 6 and 8 p.m. and catch the single dance performance at the end of the night.
IF YOU GO
What: Holiday Evening Tours by Candlelight
Where: Davenport House Museum, 324 E. State St.
When: 6-8:30 p.m. Dec. 26-30
Cost: $12 in advance, $15 at the door for adults; $6 in advance, $8 at the door for children
Visit Website: davenporthousemuseum.org