Yuletide of yesteryear: House features Victorian-era Christmas decorations

The seasonal decor at the classic Inn at Irwin Gardens shows a tasteful spirit — literally.

Dried oranges sweeten the cedar garland strung as holiday bunting. Elsewhere, strings of popcorn and dried cranberries lace branches on the nine- and 12-foot Christmas trees in the library and tea room just off the foyer.

A Victorian Christmas, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the former Irwin family mansion, will give visitors plenty to chew on, figuratively speaking, when considering a yuletide of yesteryear.

This marks the fourth consecutive Christmas program at the facility, where attendance exceeded 200 the first year in 2013, and has hovered in the range of 160 visitors at subsequent annual holiday events. Organizers are hoping for at least 200 visitors on Friday.

There will be plenty for them to see.

“More (holiday decor) was better in the Victorian era,” said Brittany Snowden, the inn’s event planner, who will play the lady of the house.

Snowden said the inn staff has bedecked the 1864 Edwardian edifice with far more quilted star balls, electric candles, lights, wreaths and other adornments than the affluent and influential Irwin family ever did in its time at the home. But while the Irwin family adopted a minimalist approach to Christmas, an event specifically meant to mark the holiday needs a bit more of an exclamation point, organizers said.

The inn is the 13,000-square-foot former boyhood home of J. Irwin Miller, the Columbus patriarch and former then-Cummins Engine Co. CEO. His father was Joseph Irwin, who built the home and founded Irwin Union Bank & Trust in the 1870s. The property was owned by an Irwin or Miller until the death of J. Irwin Miller’s wife, Xenia, in 2008.

The last Miller family member to live in the house was Clementine Tangeman, J. Irwin Miller’s sister, who died in 1996.

Columbus residents Chris and Jessica Stevens bought the residence In December 2009, an effort to preserve it for the community.

The extensive Christmas decor that a team of six recently completed is simply the inn’s way to more creatively deck the halls with boughs of jolly, especially for the sake of young guests on Friday, as Snowden sees it.

“Kids are usually pretty excited,” Snowden said. “And things like this help give them an experience and reminder that there have been interesting things long before their video-game console.”

The event will include story reading near the library fire, a visit from a Victorian Santa and Mrs. Claus from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., a puppet show and writing letters to St. Nick, a tradition that dates to the Victorian era. Amid the activities, period-costumed characters will mingle with guests as if they were hosting an actual holiday party.

“That’s a little more personal than just a tour,” Snowden said.

Managing innkeeper Sarah Johnston mentioned that the staff and helpers want to keep it real — as much as possible — while letting memories of the past flow like the warm cider prepared for visitors.

“Obviously, in some ways, we could not be 100 percent authentic,” Johnston said.

For example, people of the period literally lit their trees with candles and kept a bucket of water nearby for safety should the warmth of the holiday go awry.

“But we want to give at least the correct ambience.”

Characters will offer tasty bits of history about the home and customs of the time period. They also will explain children’s top yesteryear gift requests, from simple cloth dolls to teddy bears.

Visitors will find historical details such as kissing rings, which are the berry-bearing, wreath-oriented Victorian precursor of mistletoe.

“If you are underneath it, you get a kiss — on the cheek, of course,” Johnston said with a laugh.

These are Victorian times, mind you.

The era also gave birth to such social staples as Christmas trees and even caroling.

“All of our Christmas events have always been meant to be a little educational, but in a very fun way,” Johnston said. “And this is a bit of an immersion event — even though some of our dress is actually from a little later than the era, maybe 1905.

“So we don’t have to be corsetted, but we certainly want to bring people right into the spirit of things.”

Right alongside the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

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What: A Victorian Christmas open house, an event that will unfold like a casual, mingling-oriented Christmas Eve party. Includes a visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Activities will include a puppet show, story readings by the fire, and the writing of letters to Santa. There also will be a sneak peek of the butler’s pantry and kitchen area. Cook will be present to offer her special period recipes.

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday.

Where: The Inn at Irwin Gardens, 608 Fifth St. in Columbus.

Cost: $10 per person with tickets at the door and no reservations needed.

Information: 812-376-3663 or [email protected]

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