AN OLD-FASHIONED CHRISTMAS
What was Christmas like over a century ago here in the Lower Mainland? To find out, I drive out to three heritage homes at the Yuletide season. I don’t get all the answers, but gain a wonderful insight into the lives of some of the families who lived here in the mid-1800s.
Stewart Farm on Crescent Road in Surrey is a-bustle when I get there in mid-December. The farmhouse is silhouetted against a flannel-grey sky, its windows a-twinkle with lights. Inside, the rooms are dressed in holiday array. A little girl tugs at her Mom’s arm as she points to the kids’ craft area. Hot-spiced apple cider is ‘on tap’ and I sample woodstove oven-baked Christmas treats.
What was it like when John Stewart and his wife Annie lived on this typical Victorian style home in 1894? Both their sons grew up here on the farm that boasted a herd of dairy cattle, pigs and horses, a vegetable garden, orchard and a cellar large enough to store two hundred cans of fruit.
After all the present-day visitors leave, do the family ghosts reappear from the shadows, I wonder. Does the dining room carry whispers of long-ago conversations, and does the parlour echo to the faint sounds of Victorian ballads and a tinkling piano?
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London Farmhouse on Dyke Road in Steveston when I arrive, is resplendent in all its Christmas finery. The house itself is bright and airy, and the furnishings are all carefully selected to match those existing at the time the farmhouse was built, between 1880 and 1890. However, the charm of London Farmhouse is not only its rooms, but also the welcoming warmth of the tea room, and the very English scones and tea served every afternoon.
Today, as I sit at a prettily appointed table, the aroma of fresh baking from the nearby kitchen wafts into the festively decorated tea-room. We all join in an enthusiastic Christmas carol sing-along session, accompanied on a 100-year old piano which was once owned by the London family.
After tea I walk through the house and read about what life was like at the turn of the century. Those years are brought to vivid life by May (neé London) Mack as recounted to her daughter, Mary Grant. “At Christmas,” she says in her narrative, “our parents would be up very early making the carrot puddings and Pa would stuff the goose for dinner at five o’clock.”
Walking through the Farmhouse today, May’s descriptions of the parlour, the dining room, hall and bedrooms warp me back to gentler era. I look in at the living room where I fancy I can hear Harry Lauder singing Roamin’ in the Gloamin on the wind-up gramophone. However, a robust chorus of Jingle Bells from the tea-room across the hallway drowns my imaginary singer.
Before leaving, I visit the gift shop with its tempting array of exquisitely designed china, needlework, hand-spun shawls and a variety of one-of-a-kind items by local artists and craftsmen. Their home-made jams and jellies are a delicious tea time or breakfast treat.
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Irving House in New Westminster has its own unique vibe. The place carries a strong evocation of the life and times of its original owner, Captain Irving and walking through the rooms is like visiting a home where the family have merely stepped out for a while.
Much of Irving House’s fascination lies in the many authentic items of furniture that grace the rooms. Today it is elegant in all its Christmas finery: a fireplace mantel with holly and cedar boughs, and a splendid Christmas tree in the formal parlour. I linger in the dining room with its festively decorated table, and peek at the bookshelves in the library. The distinctive original wallpaper in the hallway and the ceiling plasterwork with its Scottish thistle and rose motif at the top of the staircase are special features of this historic home.
My hostess dressed in period costumes, shares engrossing anecdotes about the family, as well as the history of Irving House itself. Captain William Irving first moved to Victoria from Portland, Oregon, in the mid 1800s at the height of the gold rush; his wife Elizabeth walked with the pioneers along the Oregon trail from Missouri to Portland where she met and married Captain Irving. In 1865 the couple moved to this house in New Westminster, where they raised a family of five children, and where Captain Irving owned a fleet of sternwheelers that transported goods along the Fraser River.
The house passed through three successive generations of the Irving family before being acquired by the City of New Westminster in 1950 for eager visitors, such as myself, to enjoy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Stewart Farm: www.heritage.surrey.ca and follow the links.
London Heritage Farmhouse: http://www.londonheritagefarm.ca/homeE.html Self guided tour pamphlets, May (London) Mack’s memoirs and other information leaflets are available at the reception area. Their Christmas craft shop offers exquisite handmade gifts, and a selection of excellent home-made jams and jellies.
Irving House: https://www.newwestcity.ca/services/arts-and-heritage/museums-and-archives#irving-house
Admission to all the above heritage homes is by donation.
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed.
1. Stewart Farmhouse in the Snow
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