Decorations and the reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
at Dalnavert Museum, a restored 1895 Winnipeg home
Dalnavert was built as a home for a well-to-do family in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the late nineteenth century. It has been restored and is now a museum. Every Christmas season, the house, decorated in Victorian style, hosts readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Dalnavert was built in 1895 for Hugh John Macdonald, businessman, politician and son of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. The Macdonald family lived in the house until Hugh’s death in 1929. The building became a rooming house for the next forty years. In 1969, the Manitoba Historical Society rescued it from planned demolition and restored the house to recreate the life of a well-to-do family in Winnipeg in 1895. The Queen Anne Revival style building is now a museum and a Provincial and National Historic Site. As I approached the building on a December evening, there was nothing on the outside to indicate the Christmas season. The inside was a different story. It was a perfect setting to listen to A Christmas Carol.
Christmas was barely celebrated at the beginning of the nineteenth century in England. By the end of the century, it had become a big celebration. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, is credited with bringing about some of the change, including the introduction of the Christmas tree, a tradition from his German childhood.
Decorating the home became a more elaborate affair. Card giving became popular. The tradition of giving gifts at New Year moved to Christmas.
Christmas crackers became a tradition after British confectioner Tom Smith introduced packages filled with sweets in 1848. The packages snapped when pulled apart. Today’s Christmas crackers contain small gifts, party hats and sometimes jokes. The Christmas feast, with family gathered round, became the centre of Christmas celebration.
A menu listing what might have been served Christmas 1895 stood on the table. The menu included oyster soup, poached turbot, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, onions in cream sauce, brussel sprouts, plum pudding and sauce, mince pie, lemon tarts, salted almonds, celery, crackers, cheese and fruit.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in 1843. It helped popularize and spread the traditions of Christmas with themes of family, charity, goodwill and peace. Dickens was involved with charities and concerned with social conditions. He wrote the novella out of concern for impoverished children and the working poor.
A stage was set up in the attached auditorium for the reading of A Christmas Carol. Award-winning playwright Ian Ross was the reader the evening I attended. I’ve seen film versions of A Christmas Carol, but I don’t recall ever reading the book. It was nice to sit back and have it read to me.
Display cases along one wall of the auditorium contained Dickens Village scenes. The exhibit featured selected pieces donated in memory of R.S.L. Lobban. Mr. Lobban spent more than two decades collecting the items, on permanent display in his home. Mounting the display at Christmas will become a Dalnavert tradition.
Attending the reading of A Christmas Carol at Dalnavert was a nice way to slow down during this busy season. It was reminder to pay attention to the lives around us and that the true Christmas spirit comes from giving.
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