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By the Way: Christmas in the Colonies


When I was a little girl my mother would select a firm fresh apple in the fall and I would help her stick cloves in it, covering the surface, to make a pomander.

It would be a bit hard on the fingers and thumbs but the finished product would make our linen closet smell heavenly.

I was amazed to discover this was an age-old custom with women in the colonies making pomanders and hanging them around the house to freshen the air during the winter months.

Sometimes they used oranges, too, and instead of covering them with cloves, simply formed a pretty pattern on the surface. I learned this from a costumed interpreter who was demonstrating the art in the summer kitchen at Keith House at Graeme Park during a Christmas in the Colonies program.

Graeme Park is in Horsham, just across the Bucks-Montgomery line, and it’s one of my favorite places. Centerpiece of the park is Keith House, built in 1722, the summer home of Sir William Keith, Pennsylvania’s first provincial governor. The 42-acre historic park is all that remains of the governor’s original 1,200-acre estate, and Keith House is one of few surviving buildings from the earliest years of the colonies.

I was among the spectators at the magical event the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In the decidedly low glow of candlelight I could almost believe I had time-traveled to the 18th century.

Decorated simply with fruits and greenery, as it would have been in the 1700s, and lit only with candles, the stone manor house rang with music as visitors walked through and learned about earlier holiday traditions from costumed interpreters based in each room.

Although built by Keith, the home’s heyday came later in the 18th century when his wealthy and influential son-in-law, Sir Thomas Graeme, renovated it and entertained his Philadelphia friends there in lavish style. Graeme, a bon vivant, was both the port physician for Philadelphia and a judge for the then Supreme Court, and he hobnobbed with city leaders, the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush. Graeme’s daughter, Elizabeth Fergusson, a poet and translator, was said to be the best educated woman in Pennsylvania; nevertheless, she had a sad life and lived out her days at Graeme Park.

In the dining room, a docent pointed to a king cake on a table filled with food typical of the times and explained the big feast and celebration in the 18th century was not held on Christmas Day, but on Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, the high point and end of the holidays. The person who found a bean in his piece of cake would be king of the festivities, she said; a different colored bean would designate queen. Gender didn’t matter in the choice; man or woman had to take on the role for the rest of the evening, she said.

Visitors crowded into another candlelit room to watch handsomely costumed members of the Tapestry Historic Dance Ensemble of Royersford gracefully move through the carefully plotted dance steps of the times. The satins and laces and ruffles seemed to take on a life of their own as the couples moved in the candlelight.

Then, as now, the dancing flames of candles were reflected in the windows, a welcome sight on a winter night. That, a docent said, was a custom brought to the colonies by the Irish. It had been traditional in Ireland when a homeowner had food to spare he’d light a candle to let a stranger know he could stop by for a meal.

Also, the woman said, during the years when Catholicism was either frowned upon or forbidden, the candle might also summon a passing priest to say Mass.

There’s nothing as welcoming as soft light pouring from a frosty window on a cold winter night.