Yuletide at Winterthur, Part One: Lighting the Way to Holiday Celebrations

Today, spectacular displays of holiday lights are a much-anticipated feature of the Christmas season. Did you know that lighting played a significant part in holiday celebrations even before the advent of electricity? This year’s Yuletide at Winterthur tour looks at how light was used historically to brighten the holidays and the long winter season.

Bonfire display, the Court

Bonfire display, the Court

Bonfire displays, backlit window transparencies, and cressets (an early form of street lights) are some of the ways people illuminated the winter nights in the 18th century. Bonfires, not unlike the one displayed in the Court at the start of the Yuletide tour, were occasionally seen as part of Christmas observances in colonial America. Today in St. James Parish, Louisiana, the annual Festival of the Bonfires draws thousands of spectators. This tradition is documented back to 1884, when a storekeeper built a large bonfire for the enjoyment of his patrons and their children. Augmented by fireworks provided by the shop owner, the bonfire attracted other revelers, who turned the event into an impromptu community festival. The tradition continues.


Moravian Christmas pyramid decorated with verses and candles.

The earliest reference to anything resembling a Christmas tree in America is found in the official diaries of the Moravian church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the 1740s. The love feast, a special meal that occurred as part of the religious observance, centered on a decorated pyramid lit by candles. The pyramid was decorated with apples and pretty verses, which at the end of the feast were distributed by the elders to the children as Christmas presents.

As Christmas trees became more popular and diverse in the 1800s, people sought alternative ways to light them. From the late 1800s through the 1920s, various shades and lanterns were developed to encase a candle and thereby protect branches from the flame.

Many of the holiday customs we have today are thanks to our early American predecessors who enriched their holiday experience with traditions brought from their European homelands. Guests are invited into Massachusetts Hall to see a Swedish-American lighting tradition, the paper-wrapped iron candelabrum called a ljuskrona (pronounced use-kroona). It has been a practice in Swedish-American households since the early 20th century to incorporate a ljuskrona into the winter holiday celebrations. The candleholder is brought out on Christmas Eve, refreshed with new paper trimming, and placed on the dinner table during the night’s feast. More recently, as families have linked their ljuskrona to the commemoration of St. Lucia, they now often bring the candleholder out on December 13, St. Lucia Day, where it remains until the end of the holiday season.

Layout 1

A Swedish-American ljuskrona,ready to be decorated with new paper trimmings for the holidays, and a German weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas pyramid.

Continuing into Wisteria Hall, the tour features the German weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas pyramid, made in Europe or America in the early 20th century. Made entirely of wood and consisting of several tiers centered on a central pillar and decorated with figures both religious and secular, these devices originated as Christmas decorations in the Erzgebirge mountain region of Germany in the early 1800s. The top is a propeller of wooden blades that causes the carousel to spin around the central axis when heated air rises from the candles placed around the platform’s perimeter.

There are other traditions that we have come to recognize in our own homes, which were introduced in the not-so-distant past. String lights, now so prominent in decorating homes and trees for the holiday season, were not seen in early holiday celebrations. The display of Christmas lights really started over the last 200 years with the evolution of the Christmas tree. Even the placement of candles in the windows is not documented before the 1890s.

We hope you enjoy the lighting displays featured in Yuletide at Winterthur, now open through January 5. Stay tuned next week for “Yuletide at Winterthur, Part 2,” which will introduce you with the trend of wedding celebrations during the winter season.

For more information about the tour and related events at Winterthur, please visit winterthur.org/yuletide.

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