Ghosts of Christmas Past Linger in Hudson

From a 1940s-style Christmas tree at FDR's family home, to scenes from classic stories at a 19th century villa, the historic mansions of the Hudson Valley will be decorated this month in the spirit of holidays past.

Visitors to Olana, home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, will be able to glimpse a tree in the family's sitting room as it might have looked in the late 1800s. Dolls and a rocker, presents the artist's children received for Christmas, will also be on display, while musicians will play Victorian selections.

Curators focused on authenticity when decorating the home Church built on the east bank of the river, according to Gerry Weidel, historic site assistant. A floral historian will arrange the flower globes on the dinner table using photographs in the collection and according to the fashions of the time.

The nearby Clermont estate, in the town of Germantown, was home to seven generations of the Livingston family, including Robert R. Livingston, who administered the oath of office to George Washington. Each Christmas, the home is decorated with family ornaments from a different era. This year, the 9-foot tree will feature 1930s-era Colonial Revival pieces.

The National Park Service is hosting a "Historic Hyde Park Christmas" at the three estates managed by the federal government in the Hudson Valley town of Hyde Park: Vanderbilt Mansion, the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt's retreat, Val-Kill.

Christmas, Vanderbilt Style

Industrialist Frederick Vanderbilt's 54-room mansion "will be lavishly decorated to represent the kind of Christmas the people of Vanderbilt's social status would have," said Franceska Urbin, supervising park ranger. Elegantly decorated trees accent the mansion's gold-leaf furniture and ornate style.

At the Roosevelt home, near a portrait of the president, a 1940s era Christmas tree will be surrounded by stacks of presents. Potted poinsettias can be found throughout the home as well, and works by Dickens will be read in accordance with a Roosevelt family tradition. FDR built Val-Kill as a retreat for his wife, and of all the Christmas recreations in the Hudson Valley, this one will remind the most visitors of their own Christmases past. The stone cottage is decorated for the holidays in the style of the 1950s, when the widowed former first lady would entertain her grandchildren at Christmas. She made her own window stencils of snowflakes and bells, and sometimes added little pieces of cotton around the window sills if it didn't snow. Packages are piled on chairs and sofas in the living room, divided up by family.

"She tried to put touches of Christmas in every room that she could," said Urbin. The rooms are arranged according to pictures and stories passed on by family members.

At Locust Grove, the estate once occupied by Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code, Christmas festivities revolve around stories of the season, rather than a particular time period. For example, the drawing-room tree in Morse's Tuscan-style villa is designed to look like a tree from "The Nutcracker."

Decorations in the master bedroom were inspired by "The Night Before Christmas." It's a fitting theme, since Locust Grove was once owned by Henry Livingston Jr.; some historians believe that Livingston, and not Clement Moore, was the true author of the classic poem.

If You Go…

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