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Today@Sam Article

Houston Family Christmas Combines 19th, 21st Century Holiday Spirits

Nov. 12, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Alexis Andrei

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Every Christmas, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum highlights the Houston way of life through their Houston Family Christmas event. This year, in addition to the traditional festivities, the Woodland Home will be open for tours on Dec. 1. —Photos by Casey Roon


FOR OVER A DECADE, the citizens of Huntsville have celebrated the Christmas of a “simpler time” at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.

Whether it’s partaking in a blacksmithing workshop or watching the historical reenactments performed by the Webb Society, the Houston Family Christmas provides a glimpse into the past during the holiday season.

As part of the annual event, the modest celebration that the Houstons would have had is recreated by museum staff so that the attendees can experience a true 19th century holiday celebration.

This celebration reflects the simplicity of the era when decorations were less ornate, gifts were handmade, and the focus of this holiday was on the joy of the gathering of family and the importance of religious occasions.

Though Gen. Sam Houston did not proclaim his faith until his 14th year of marriage to Margaret Houston, Margaret was a devout Baptist.

“All of their holiday celebrations directly stemmed from the church; they were not in the bourgeois fashion of ‘victorian abundance’ that we are familiar with today. However, Margaret did decorate her home with the amenities available,” said Helen Belcher, a historical interpreter at the museum. “Just religion, no ostentatious extravagance. A very simple life, just the reason for the season.”

While the ornamentations around the Houston house were not as extravagant as they are now, the bonds of family and simpler things brought in the seasonal spirit.

“There was also a whole house full of children so there was plenty of merriment, candles, and things for Christmas, but not what we experience today,” Belcher said.

During that time, the “Baptist Christmas” was not a strong holiday like it was in the north or for Catholics, but especially not during the Houston’s “Steamhouse days,” referring to the Houston family residence in which Gen. Houston died from pneumonia in 1863.

“Especially during the end, I don’t think Christmas would have been a big deal because it was during the middle of the Civil War. Their eldest son was out fighting, Sam was very sick, and I think that would have certainly flavored Christmas,” said Danielle Brissette, another historical interpreter at the museum.

Like today, one of the most important parts of Christmas for the Houston family was the cuisine, according to Brissette.

Food was the staple of every holiday meal, and Eliza, the household slave, would have baked for the occasion with some instruction from Margaret. Because of Eliza’s illiteracy, the recipes were subject to change, but some of Eliza’s famous recipes include apple crisps, molasses pie, pear cobbler, and buttermilk pie, also known as Jeff Davis pie. Unless someone brought extra items from different cities, the usual cuisine for the time was simple, the museum staff said.

Another popular Christmas meal was bear, a staple of the Texan diet during this time period.

“In the 1850 Walker County Census, a man’s job was listed as a bear hunter. The bear population was the largest right before their hibernation. The bear meat would have been a nice change from the cured chicken and pork meats that they ate so frequently,” Belcher said.

Preservation was a vital part of eating during this time. Everything from fruit to meat was preserved after it was hunted, gathered or harvested for sustainable consumption.

Gingerbread was a favorite of Margaret’s. According to Belcher, when le Marquis de Lafayette was invited to take a tour of the states by President James Monroe in 1824, he was served Margaret’s family recipe for gingerbread.

Another staple of the time was wassail. Traditional wassail is a hot mulled cider drank as an integral part of wassailing, an ancient southern English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. It is the equivalent of modern day beer or wine and was served at social gatherings as a part of celebration.

Another important aspect of Christmas for the past and present was gifting. The gifts in that era were more “thoughtful and practical,” focusing value on quantity over quality, Brissette said.

“Most gifts were handmade, unless Gen. Houston brought some back from his trips to Washington. When Gen. Houston was in Washington serving as a senator or advocating for Texas as a state, he would bring home silver cups, shoes and interesting gifts,” Belcher said.

“The children, however, just made things from paper and things they could find,” Brissette said. “Poems and music were a favorite; other preferences included yarn, books, baskets and hand cushions. Very simple things were given to each other, utilizing essential trades of the time.”

Especially important to the Houstons during the holidays was the celebration of family. Gen. Houston was absent from the home most of the time pursuing his political ventures, so when he was around for Christmas it was a time to revel.

“Dad at home for Christmas was a big deal. They were a close family in that regard,” Brissette said.

A 21st Century Family Christmas

Santa in the Woodland HomeIn translating this era for Houston Family Christmas, the museum staff continues to emphasize this “family” aspect, encouraging families to enjoy all the museum’s festivities and create lasting memories as they glance back to that “simpler” time.

The event, on Dec. 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will follow the Houston tradition with decorations and food, and will allow attendees to make items similar to those made by the Houston children.

“Museum staff decorate by cutting things that grow around the grounds, which we think they would have done, including cutting opine, magnolia, and evergreen for the smell and decoration around the Woodland Home,” said Belcher, adding that the Steamboat House will be the only site on museum grounds that will not be decorated for this occasion because of the historical solemnness surrounding it after Gen. Houston’s death in 1863.

There will be baked goods available, including an assortment of gingerbread, wassail and cake and a rum sauce made by Belcher.

“We will be cooking. The house will be open and people will have the opportunity to step inside, so you can enjoy your gingerbread by the fire, experiencing Christmas like they would,” Brissette said.

A butter-making class will be offered to anyone, but especially to children. Guests will be able to create butter catering to their individual taste, which can be taken home or applied to their gingerbread.

Because the sugar during the Houstons’ time would have been brown and come in a “giant sort of ice cream cone” in which you would scrape bits off, a “block” of sugar will be available with an old-fashioned tool present to gather a share of sugar, Brissette said.

“We bought a nipper this year, so you can use it to scrape off what you need,” Brissette said.

In the fashion of hand-made items to give from the heart during the holidays, there will be various classes offered such as woodworking and whittling. There will also be a spinner, a potter, and a blacksmith on the grounds.

“When you come you should definitely dress for the weather,” Brissette said.

The famed Woodland Home will be open for touring for the first time ever during this event and will have a special guest, Santa, as a resident offering pictures and granting Christmas wishes. The Woodland Home is where the Houston family lived until 1859, when Gen. Houston ran for governor of Texas and won.

“Traditionally, opening the home and Eliza’s kitchen has been very popular; adults and children come to see Santa, they love drinking a little wassail and eating the gingerbread amidst the decorated rooms in the home. It’s a great way to start to start the season’s celebrations,” Belcher said.

SHSU’s Walter P. Webb Historical Society also will stroll the grounds in traditional dress during the event, greeting patrons and answering any questions about the history of Gen. Sam Houston and his family.

Admission to the Houston Family Christmas is free.

For more information about the event, contact the museum marketing coordinator Megan Buro at 936.294.3839.



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