A Victorian Christmas at Beaconsfield

·3 min read
A Victorian Christmas at Beaconsfield

The pandemic cut short planned public tours for Christmas at historic Beaconsfield house in Charlottetown, but you can take a virtual tour here.

The P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation put together the display to provide Islanders with a view of how Islanders celebrated Christmas in the Victoria era more than 100 years ago.

"The holidays are a great time to make memories — maybe not history in the traditional sense we think of it," said foundation executive director Matthew McRae.

"Christmas is a time to make memories and attach memories to people, to places, and to objects."

The display included an array of Christmas cards: an idea that was first introduced in the 1840s, as postage rates became more affordable. By the 1870s everyone was sending them.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

The early decades were an era of experimentation in the cards, and the display included a variety of decoration: from winter scenes, ornately inscribed messages, and kids getting up to highjinks.

Entertaining was as important an element of Christmas then as it is now, and the display included one of the foundation's newest acquisitions.

The china tea set dates back to 18th century, having been brought to the Island by William and Janet Simpson in 1775, following an early escape from disaster. Their ship wrecked off Point Prim, but the tea set was salvaged.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

It spent almost 200 years in various homes around the Island but in the 1940s it was moved to British Columbia. In the 1980s, still in the family descended from the Simpsons, it was serving tea in Sydney, Australia.

The family donated the tea set to the museum foundation in 2020. McRae describes it as the most Island tea set you'll ever encounter, and not just because of how far back its pedigree goes.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"Janet and William Simpson were the great-great grandparents of Lucy Maud Montgomery," he said.

While the Victoria era brought the dawn of mass production, handcrafts were still common.

An example is a 19th century model house made of seashells collected from Bedeque Bay.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"It's an excellent example of the kind of family handicrafts that might have happened in a place like Beaconsfield in the 1800s," McRae said.

A permanent resident of Beaconsfield was also part of the tour: a Christmas cactus, known to be at least a century old and perhaps as old as 140 years.

"I like to think that all artifacts have a life of their own, but this one quite literally has a life of its own and has been going strong for over a century now," said McRae.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

The cactus was brought into the museum collection by George Clark, a former president of Eptek Arts and Culture Centre in Summerside, now part of the P.E.I. Museum. It was his mother's, and can be reliably traced back 100 years. Anecdotes suggest it is older.

There were some more modern items as well.

In the 1980s the museum began collecting the top-selling toys from each year to preserve them for future generations.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"People might not think of things like Transformers, Holly Hobby, Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo as history, but it is. It's part of the heritage of Christmas, and it's part of the heritage of the Island," said McRae.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC
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