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AN OLD-FASHIONED CHRISTMAS

Three Lower Mainland heritage homes celebrate the holidays

by Margaret Deefholts

Christmas is a nostalgic time of year. We honour age-old family traditions, dress the Tree with cherished ornaments, sing well-loved carols and share memories of Christmases past with family and friends.

Scrolling back through time, what was Christmas like over a century ago here in the Lower Mainland? To find out, I drive out to three heritage homes during 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?

Music is very much in the air at London Heritage Farmhouse in Steveston when I drop in the following day. In the festively decorated tea-room, carollers, led by Sharon McIntee Birrell, are belting out We Wish You A Merry Christmas. They are accompanied by Bea Blackford on a 100-year old piano that was once owned by the London family. The aroma of fresh baking wafts in from the nearby kitchen, and a large group of young Japanese visitors are enjoying scones and Christmas cake.

Life in the London Farmhouse at the turn of the century is brought to vivid life by May (ne London) Mack as recounted to her daughter, Mary Grant. "At Christmas," she says, "our parents would be up very early making the carrot puddings and Pa would stuff the goose for dinner at five o'clock." As I walk through the house 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. A robust chorus of Jingle Bells across the hallway drowns him out!

At the end of a corridor in the upper floor of the house, a woman dressed in old-fashioned garb sits at her spinning wheel. A proud member of the Richmond-based Weavers & Spinners Guild, Stephanie tells me that she's been demonstrating her craft at the Farmhouse for many years. Today, she's spinning wool for a blanket-a gift for her son.

At Irving House in New Westminster, Marlene Blair, in the guise of a dignified "Victorian hostess" greets me at the door. To my left, in the formal drawing room, two little boys, their mom and a family friend are playing Silent Night. The youngsters beam shyly when I applaud their performance.

Irving House exudes atmosphere, its rooms elegantly decorated with holly and cedar boughs, and a splendid Christmas tree in the formal parlour. Much of the furniture is authentic and it's as though the Irvings still live here, but have merely stepped out for a while.

Captain William Irving moved to New Westminster from Oregon, in the mid 1800s at the height of the gold rush, and within a decade he owned a fleet of sternwheelers transporting goods along the Fraser River. I listen to Marlene's engrossing anecdotes about the family, as well as the history of the house itself, and pause to admire the distinctive original wallpaper in the hallway, and the ceiling plasterwork with its Scottish thistle and rose motif.

Irving House was acclaimed as being one of New Westminster's grandest mansions when it was completed in 1865. Almost a century and a half later, it is still is.

Further Information:

Stewart Farm: www.heritage.surrey.ca and follow the links.
London Heritage Farmhouse: www.londonheritagefarm.ca/
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. Teas are $6.00 per person.

Irving House: www.nwpr.bc.ca/parks%20web%20page/irving%20hse.html

Admission to all the above heritage homes is by donation.

Photos:

1. Christmas recital at Irving House, New Westminster (Photo: Margaret Deefholts)
2. Irving House, Royal Avenue, New Westminster (Photo: Margaret Deefholts)
3. Spinner, Stephanie, London Heritage Farmhouse, Steveston (Photo: Margaret Deefholts)
4. London Heritage Farmhouse, Steveston (Photo: Margaret Deefholts)
5. Stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, Stewart Farmhouse (Photo: Courtesy Surrey Heritage Services)
6. A White Christmas at Stewart Farmhouse (Photo: Courtesy Surrey Heritage Services)

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