Frances Lee

Schoolroom preserves Christmas traditions


On Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, the Glessner and Clarke House Museums will hold their annual Candlelight Tours.  These tours, held at , , and , focus on Christmas traditions and decorations of the mid- to late-nineteenth centuries.  A popular event for many years, the tours allow visitors the opportunity to experience the museums from a different perspective and explore how 19th century families celebrated the holiday.  The Clarke House interpretation is based on extensive research of the period, whereas the Glessner House focuses heavily on the documentation left behind by Frances Glessner in her journal.  Reservations are required for the tours, call 312-326-1480.

A highlight of the Glessner tour is the schoolroom, a space designed specifically for the Glessners’ two children, George and Fanny, who were 16 and 9 respectively when they moved into their home in December 1887.  Since the celebration of Christmas in the family revolved around the children, it is not surprising that the decorations were largely confined to this space in the early years. 

The room is decorated with a small table-top tree, very similar to a tree the Glessner children decorated in 1888.  Such trees were common at the time, and preceded the larger trees which stand on the floor and became popular by the early 1900s.  Homemade ornaments including a tin foil wrapped bird and gold painted walnuts were typical decorations.

A somewhat unique part of the Christmas celebration undertaken by the Glessners was the “Christmas pie,” illustrated above.  Each year, Frances Glessner prepared the pie, which contained small toys buried in rice with rhymes written on paper labels attached.  Her journal entry in 1888 describes the tradition, “We had a lovely Christmas pie covered with holly and smilax.  The presents were buried in the tin pan in rice.  We had a great deal of sport pulling them out, the labels hung out.  There were rhymes on each one.”

Sitting near the pie is a plate with two gingerbread cookies waiting for Santa.  On the plate is a handwritten note composed about 1909 by Frances Lee, one of the Glessners’ grandchildren.  The note reads, “Dear Santa Clause – This year I want surprises.  Thank you very much for the lovely presents you gave me last year.  I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year, and please give my love to all the other children.  Frances Lee.”

Surrounding the tree are gifts typical of what George and Fanny received through the years – a toy stove, a train, metal soldiers and Indians, books, a scarf and mittens, oranges (a luxury food item at the time) and a set of dominoes, the latter of which were made for John Glessner’s company, Warder Bushnell & Glessner, and distributed as a promotional item.