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Saturday, December 16 Local

Greenwich Historical Society offers a glimpse into Christmas past

GREENWICH — In a photo circa 1910, two young twins from the Holley-MacRae family surround a scrawny tree strewn with tinsel. A few baubles dangle from branches, shining brightly despite their black and white hues. To the side, a fishbowl filled with water waits, in case a lit candle sets a twig ablaze.

The pitiful sapling looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree before Snoopy made it cool.

Today, a pretend evergreen sits in the same corner, with ornaments and fake candles lining its limbs. Despite a few clips here and there, it still forms the hearty triangular shape familiar to a modern eye.

For Karen Frederick, curator at the Bush-Holley House, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“I keep trying to make it a little barer,” she said.

In an age when aesthetic is so heavily emphasized, the typical home goods store might not get much demand for less plush pines, especially in the plastic variety. But during the holiday season, part of Frederick’s job is to revert to a time when decor wasn’t so Instagramable and most people still nabbed their trees from the forest.

Starting Thursday, the Bush-Holley House opens its doors to visitors for a historically accurate holiday experience in its interior. Touches of green pop from the hallways, and brown paper packages tied up with strings sit on beds, waiting to be opened by an imaginary guest.

Docent-led tours will be offered Wednesday through Sunday at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. through the end of December. On Sunday, Dec. 17, tours by candlelight will be led from 5 to 7 p.m.

As always, the local site tells two stories. One chronicles the Bush family, who lived through the colonial period to see American independence and its aftermath. The other centers on the Holley-MacRae household, which played host to some of the most recognized names from the Cos Cob Art Colony.

According to Frederick, there is precious little information on the Bush’s Christmas traditions.

“They probably would have gone to church in the morning, and the slaves would have gone to church with them,” she said. “But what they did for the rest of the day, we don’t know.”

In an elderly Sarah Bush’s bedroom, a few sprigs of green signal the season. The parlor also has indications of festivities: Cards sprawled across the table for a game of whist, and cakes and cookies on deck to entertain.

The scene reflects how even if the Bush’s did not celebrate Christmas through the same traditions we follow today, they likely held parties during the interlude between Dec. 25 and New Year’s, Frederick said.

Through information from documents and images, the Holley section has been more fully fleshed. A 1910 photo provides some context on how the family decked out their dining room, but there are also letters and postcards that hint at how their Christmas more generally took shape.

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In one note to her mother, whom she nicknamed Mud, Constant Holley-MacRae writes that the family will hang their stockings that night. And so Frederick has included four of them in her dining room design, just above the fireplace.

But perhaps more obviously, the space plays host to the Christmas feast that some merrymakers have come to expect. Frederick knows through her research that the Holley’s ate Welsh rarebit during the holidays, but the cheese dish doesn’t exactly make for a pleasant spectacle.

“It’s really quite good,” she allowed. “But it looks like somebody heaved on the plate.”

So instead of that, Frederick has chosen to dress the dinner table with assorted goodies Constant mentions to her mother in another message about Thanksgiving. The spread includes fake oysters, biscuits and turkey.

According to the letter, Constant covered the table with berries, pine and candlesticks, and artist Childe Hassam lauded her work as “the prettiest table decoration he had ever seen.” With cutlery and china from the Holley collection, Frederick has attempted to recreate the meal, down to details like the type of skinny fowl that frequented revels before selective breeding.

“You couldn’t be a wild turkey and be like our turkeys today, because you wouldn't get very far before the predator would get you,” she said.

A room away, on the entryway table near the front door, copies of postcards from friends provide examples of Victorian style. In an elegant font, one reads, “Because Christmas day has been set apart as a day for expressions of friendship, it is my pleasure to send you then my sincere best wishes.” A second spells out yet another warm sentiment: “I hope you will lack nothing to make a merry Christmas.”

Still others reject words, using sketches of bundled up children and wood-hauling men to denote the time of year.

At the center of the pack, one drawing shows a snow-dusted cottage, with “Holly Inn” scrawled on a sign. Despite the misspelling, Frederick conjectured that a loved one might have sent the card because of its reference to the household name.

There are still other tidbits about how the Holley’s commemorated the season, but not all lend themselves to display. From the archives, one letter stood out, and Frederick had it on hand Wednesday to share with house callers.

On a snowy winter day, one of the twins writes to her grandmother that her sister wants a dog next Christmas, so she can go hunting in search of foxes.

The anecdote illustrates how rural and forest-like what is now Strickland Road was only a hundred years ago. But it also provides insight into the minds of the Holley-MacRaes and their two little girls.

“I think it’s wonderful that the twin ... only wants a dog so she can go hunting in the woods,” Frederick said.

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