Yuletide: Material Culture with Holiday Cheer

Each year at Winterthur, staff transform the museum into a winter wonderland. Cotton snow covers the floors and festive evergreen trees welcome you into each space.

More than just a dazzling, feel-good celebration of the holiday season, Yuletide creatively interprets museum spaces and history to a broader audience. Visitors learn more about American material culture and connect with historic objects through narratives of holiday celebrations.

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Historic building facades frame a bonfire and sleigh in the indoor court. This vignette recreates a winter scene from the Currier and Ives lithograph Winter Evening, printed in 1854.

As students in the Winterthur program, part of our training includes tour guiding and interpretation to general audiences. The museum employs docent-guided tours as the primary means of interpreting the historic house in conjunction with the self-guided gallery spaces. Guiding groups through the house, we include a certain amount of personalization to incorporate guests’ interests as we go along. Students practice the art of establishing rapport with each group and connecting with diverse visitor motives and interests.

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The table setting in the du Pont dining room interprets the family’s Christmas luncheon in the early 1950s.

During Yuletide, the general tour interprets American and du Pont family Christmas and New Year’s celebrations from 1850 to 1950. This year, the theme of Yuletide is, “through the eyes of children,” demonstrated through narratives and objects that speak to children’s experiences during the holidays.

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In the left hand corner, a small Christmas tree covered in electric lights and American flags brings to life the narrative of Christmas morning at the White House, 1902. That year, eight year old Archie Roosevelt surprised his family with a decorated tree and presents.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between entertainment and education, but part of what makes Yuletide a successful program is its ability to appeal to a broader audience who might not otherwise be drawn to a museum of American decorative arts. In some cases, visitors are excited to learn about historic Christmas traditions, like the Victorian gift-giving game pictured below.

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A December 1876 issue of popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas describes a holiday gift-giving game where each guest’s name is attached to a different colored ribbon or string. The participant follows the spider’s web from the chandelier throughout the room to their presents.

In other cases, visitors enjoy reminiscing on holiday traditions from their own past, like the bubble lights that decorate this tree.

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Visitors often reminisce about the bubble lights and mid-twentieth century games under this tree. The scene interprets “Mr. Harry’s Party,” a Christmas Day celebration for the children of Winterthur estate staff. The tradition started with the museum founder’s father and continued through the 1960s.

Our role as interpreters allows us to tell narratives that bring historic objects and interior spaces to life, connecting visitors to personal meaning through aesthetic beauty, nostalgic memories, and tangible connections to the past.

By Sarah Berndt, WPAMC Class of 2017



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