Researching the life-styles of the Royals and merchants at Christmas is a snap. There are images galore on the Internet because artists were hired by the gentry to memorialize their good fortune in oils and etchings. The holidays were not as visually festive for the poor, and few painters found their drab surroundings artistically stimulating.
If authenticity is your thing, the following brief guide may aid your decorating decisions.
The Lower Orders
In colonial times, the poor usually lived in one all-purpose room, with the fireplace being the center of their lives. It was the kitchen and work room most daylight hours. The table might be boards on saw horses or a piece of wood with swing legs and drop leaves. When not in use, this was stored against a wall. The room converted to a sleeping space when rolled-up bedding was spread on the floor. How close to the fireplace depended on the season, and how far north they lived.
Christmas decorations were limited to an evergreen branch or two on the mantel, wound with a strip of bright cloth or ribbon for color. A candle representing the Star of Light might be lit for a short period. Gifts were made by loving hands at home, and might include clothing, tools and a trinket or two.
The Christmas feast depended on how bountiful the harvest, and the quantity of game in the forest. Only in a good year would the portable table became a “groaning board,” sagging under the weight of Christmas dinner. At best, this could include a loaf of round bread, potatoes, yams, pumpkin, peas, carrots, corn, onions, fowl, cakes, pies, cookies, brandies, wine, beer and coffee. This is a great place for a fledgling miniaturist to learn how to use polymer clay. A “finished” look is not desirable with homespun, anyway.
Homes of the wealthy were large enough to have rooms devoted to a single purpose: a kitchen, pantry, dining room, bedroom – each would have a fireplace and a mantle loaded with Christmas decorations. Swags of boxwood or conifers, entwined with magnolia leaves and boughs of white pine, were popular. Clues to the future ornamentation were fresh lemons and oranges, brought by trading vessels from the West Indian colonies.
The Christmas feast would be spread on a table crafted by a local cabinetmaker or imported from the Continent. The table settings could be pewter, red ware – glazed clay ceramic — or possibly Chinese blue and white porcelain.
The meal might have dishes the lower class enjoyed, but differed greatly in variety and quantity.
Again, try making these items yourself. If your first try at crafting in 1/12th scale, “3 larded pheasants and a swan pye” falls flat, trash it, and try again. Fimo and Sculpy are cheap, costing about $2.50 for a 2 once block. Polymer clay lasts forever, if stored in plastic wrap or a Ziploc bag.
The wealthy had store-bought gifts, such as jigsaw puzzles, rollers skates, harmonicas, or a paint box with color pellets. Like the poor, the rich had good years and bad. Their economic wellbeing depended on ships surviving North Atlantic storms, or trappers snagging enough beaver pelts.
One thing not to put in a colonial miniature is a decorated Christmas tree, although its “invention” is attributed to Martin Luther two centuries earlier. He had taken a walk one clear December night in a forest and felt closer to God at the sight of stars twinkling above snow-laden bows. On arriving home, he set a small conifer on a table and decorated it with candles to inspire the children.
The Christmas tree did not arrive in America until the early 1800s.