Ben Stephenson and his wife, Lucy, were staunch Presbyterians in the early 1800s, so it’s unlikely they would have had a party or decorated for Christmas because neither tradition was mentioned in the Bible.
“They probably went to church, and they may have had a meal, but that’s about it,” said RoxAnn Raisner, director of the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House historic site in Edwardsville.
So RoxAnn and her merry band of volunteers are taking a few liberties by inviting the public to celebrate Christmas the way people from other religions and cultures did at the time — with singing, dancing, card games, wassail (hot mulled cider) and sweets.
Hours for self-guided Christmas Candlelight Tours at the home are 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Candles and fireplaces will light the two-story, Federal-style brick home, which is filled with antique furniture, wall hangings, dishes and tools. Volunteers will wear period clothing.
“I always tell people, ‘If you’re into Jane Austen, you’ll love it,’” RoxAnn said. “You step back in time when you walk in the door.”
But RoxAnn warns guests not to expect elaborate decorations, like the fruit-filled wreaths and garlands on doors and windows in Colonial Williamsburg. Those are a relatively new tradition.
“If people had fruit (in the early 1800s), they wouldn’t have put it outside for the birds to eat,” RoxAnn said. “In paintings, you will see holly in the windows. The decor is very simple, but very beautiful.”
Volunteers at the Stephenson House attached a holly sprig at the base of each window pane with a little beeswax. Branches and berries fill vases, red bows adorn candlesticks and mistletoe hangs from a light fixture in the entry.
Volunteer Jane Denny will play Christmas carols on a fortepiano (early version of the piano) that was donated and restored.
“Initially, I wanted to stick to music from the time period, but I was somewhat limited in the songs,” she said, noting that she wants people to sing along.
Today, Jane mixes “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” (16th century), “I Saw Three Ships” (17th) and “Joy to the World” (18th) with modern favorites such as “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Other volunteers will lead country dances and rounds of Whist, an English “trick-taking” card game popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The home’s orientation room features a Christmas exhibit that traces the history of traditions such as plum pudding and wassail, greeting cards, Santa Claus and Christmas trees. There also will be a storyteller and pranks by St. Nicholas sidekick Rupert.
“My favorite part is the candlelight,” Jane said. “It just softens everything, from the surroundings to the people. It’s beautiful.”
Stephenson was a merchant, sheriff, bank president, road commissioner, Indian agent, colonel in the Illinois militia and member of Edwardsville’s original board. He also was one of 33 men who helped write the Illinois Constitution.
The home is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s small by today’s standards — with only four rooms, plus outbuildings — but it shows how the upper class lived in the early 19th century.
“The Stephensons did have parties,” RoxAnn said, noting Fourth of July was a bigger holiday than Christmas in those days. “They had one Fourth of July party that lasted four days. It was such a huge affair, it made the St. Louis paper.”
The Stephenson House will be closed Friday and Saturday during the day so volunteers can prepare for evening festivities. Admission to Christmas Candlelight Tours is $10 for adults and $5 for children 6 to 12 (free for 5 and under).
At a glance
- What: Candlelight Christmas Tours
- When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Where: 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House, 409 S. Buchanan in Edwardsville
- Admission: $10 for adults and $5 for children 6 to 12 (free for 5 and under)
- Information: Call 618-692-1818, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.stephensonhouse.org