The Yuletide celebration at Winterthur is sure to get you into the holiday spirit— whether you are taking in the beauty of the holiday décor and the lights display or observing Yuletide’s second major theme, the celebration of weddings during the holiday season. We are first introduced to this theme looking into a wedding supper display. Historically, in New England and Virginia weddings often occurred in November and December. Quantities of fresh meat, the recent new harvest, maturity of wine laid from the previous year, and relief from the demands of farm work helped to assure that fine hospitality would succeed at a marriage supper as well as it did at Christmas dinner.
Following the marriage supper, the Yuletide tour continues into a winter wedding reception, circa 1840. Typically weddings in the mid 1800s occurred in the home or in a church, but because usually quite large in a home only a select number of guests could be present at the actual ceremony. As weddings were changing, so were the gifts.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, prosperous parents often provided money or property to help a couple get started, but gifts were not yet common. Early on, weddings were informal gatherings that wove the new couple into the life of the community. By the mid 1800s, however, weddings were becoming more formalized, more regulated, more elaborate, and more expensive; and the emphasis on the gift increased. A growing trend was to display all of the gifts with the card of the giver at the reception, inviting comparison. One important aspect of the new trend towards gift giving is that the presents bestowed were intended more for the bride alone, such as jewelry, accessories for her dressing table, and even articles of clothing; alternately they were items directed at her domestic sphere, suitable for furnishings or decorating the home. However, nothing given was truly of necessity. To give such a gift might offend the couple, implying that the husband could not provide such basic needs for his new bride.
A new room on this year’s tour is the McIntire Room, which displays a formal wedding ball. Dancing was a popular entertainment at many weddings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A popular means of decorating a ballroom was to chalk the floor. The reason for this varied from ornamental use—disguising a worn floor—to practical use—cutting down on the slipperiness that might imperil dancers. Music for a ball may have been provided by the hosts themselves or hired entertainers for the occasion.
It is interesting to take a look at the traditions in the earlier centuries to see how they have changed throughout the years. Nowadays it is more common for couples to marry during the spring and summer months. The giving of gifts has also changed from giving elaborate gifts not of necessity to gifts of complete necessity, gifts that help a new couple build a home together.
There is still time to celebrate the holidays at Winterthur! The Yuletide tour is open until January 5. For more information, please visit winterthur.org/yuletide.