“We all know what it’s like to get ready for the holiday season, what it’s like to get a house ready for the holidays,” said Christine Herbaly.
It’s no different at two historic St. Paul gems — the James J. Hill and Alexander Ramsey houses.
Every holiday season, the massive mansions are draped with greenery, ribbons and period ornaments and open for tours that reveal how Christmas and New Year’s Eve were celebrated in the Victorian era.
While the homes — their original owners, architecture and furnishings — are rooted in the past, their celebrations are “relatable because we all go through challenges and happy times,” said Herbaly, historic sites manager for the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns and operates the homes.
Hill House Christmas Traditions
Built in 1891, the James J. Hill House is more than an excellent example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture: It once was the biggest home in the state. The 36,500-square-foot mansion boasts 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 chandeliers and a 100-foot-long reception hall.
While the Summit Avenue home is open for tours all year, Christmas is one of the best times to see it. In addition to the holiday decorations, the tours focus on the Hill family rituals and back stories. (Including the fact that Mrs. Hill thumbed her nose at Prohibition, making her own wine and mailing it to her sons when they were away at school.)
The holiday tour revolves around the Hill family’s preparations for a party on Dec. 14, 1910, for which, like all Gilded Age gatherings, “it was really important to make your wealth known,” said tour guide Sophie Panetti.
That wealth is on display in the formal dining room (the most expensive room in the house, according to Panetti), with its gold-leaf ceiling and hand-carved mahogany.
The table is set for a gathering of 22, with settings for a formal dinner — charger, fine china, four forks, knives, three spoons and separate wine glasses for each wine pairing. The centerpieces are large and, in the style of the day, designed to prevent guests from speaking to one another across the table. Etiquette required you to speak only to the person to your left or right.
There’s a Christmas tree in the library, where the family would gather. In Victorian times, it would have been lit with candles and a butler would be stationed nearby with a bucket of water in case it caught fire.
The kitchen is set to prepare for a 12-course dinner. It was typical of the time for holiday meals to feature exotic and out-of-season ingredients in order to display one’s wealth.
Downstairs, the stories of the servants take center stage. We learn about the people — Germans and Scandinavians — who came to America in search of a better life. The trunk that head cook Lena Peterson used to travel from Sweden is part of the display.
Ironically, the holidays were a difficult time for the Hill family. Both James and his wife, Mary, had lost their fathers during the season. And James didn’t care for the holidays, often working through them.
The hourlong guided tours take place Wed., Thu., Fri. and Sun. through December. On Saturdays in December, move through the house at your own pace. Cost: $8-$12 for the Christmas Traditions guided tour. $6-$10 for Saturdays. Info: 240 Summit Av., St. Paul. 651-297-2555. mnhs.org/hillhouse
Ramsey House Victorian Christmas
Completed in 1872, this was home to Alexander Ramsey and his family while he served as a Minnesota senator. Built to make a statement, the 15-room house features black walnut woodwork and a griffin light fixture in the entrance.
The Ramsey House is open only for special programming most of the year. But for the holidays, it’s dressed up and open for public tours, complete with guides in period costume.
The parlor features a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments owned by the Ramseys — German-style Kugel ornaments and Dresden ornaments, which are gold and silver embossed cardboard. (The only new ornament is a hidden pickle. If you can spot it, you’re supposed to have good luck in the new year.)
In the kitchen, guests are greeted by the scent of cookies baking. (You can sample a traditional Russian tea cake, snickerdoodle or thumbprint cookie.) The History Players portray kitchen staff members as they might have been configured in the 1800s, some boasting about the state-of-the-art refrigerator that was cooled by ice.
The dining room is set for dinner, with oyster plates and knife rests. And a kissing ball encourages a rare opportunity (in the Victorian era, anyway) for public displays of affection. “It was very scandalous and thus very exciting,” said guide Kas Fowler.
The tour also includes the bedrooms, the nursery with “very well loved dolls,” and a glance at Ramsey’s office and a “snuggery,” where the Ramsey women could read, sew or write letters.
In one such copy of a letter, Mrs. Ramsey wrote to her husband, calling him negligent for leaving her alone for her first winter in Minnesota. “I nearly froze to death in bed and out,” she wrote.
The Victorian Christmas tours are Thu.-Sun. through Dec. 29. Cost: $8-$12. Info: 265 S. Exchange St., St. Paul. 651-296-8760. mnhs.org/ramseyhouse