Christmas time travel

About Town
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 16, 2009

TINSELED + FEATHERED Natural Christmas decorations. Photo: Sonya Tomlinson

When I needed a bit of help getting into the holiday spirit last week, I decided to kill a bunch of birds and seek that seasonal boost while checking a Portland landmark off my list and getting a history lesson at the same time. For 25 years, the Victorian Mansion on Danforth Street has celebrated the season by decorating the 19th-century historic house with period-appropriate holiday embellishments. The tradition enables the Mansion to attract repeat (or first-time!) winter visitors, in addition to the summer tourist crowds that are its lifeblood.

Local florists are invited to bedeck one room apiece; as long as it's Victorian-inspired, they can decorate as they see fit. Visitors tour the house, reveling in ribbon-wrapped, ceiling-brushing Christmas trees in one room, gold-flecked starfish ornaments in the next, and an ongoing refresher course on Victorian-era manners and mores. Among other things, I learned that the term "drawing room" is derived from the fact that women used to "withdraw" to that room after dinner; that trompe l'oeil-style wall paintings "fool the eye" by mimicking three-dimensional surfaces with flat paint; and that the original owners (who built the mansion as a summer home between 1858 and 1860) split their time between Maine and New Orleans (hence the two state seals at the top of the main stairway). I also yearned fervently for a return to morning visits and calling cards.

While each room was opulently adorned, my companions and I most appreciated the decorations in the upstairs sitting room, which would most frequently been occupied by the ladies of the house engaging in artistic pursuits such as piano- or harp-playing, painting, or embroidering. There, Compositions (the seven-month-old flower/jewelry/home-design store at 13 Free St.) juxtaposed natural elements — pinecones, nutshells, feathers, and branches — with silver balls and tinsel on three Christmas trees, making for an elegant-yet-subtle arrangement. Best of all, it smelled like firewood and cinnamon — holiday harbingers if there ever were some.

Choose your own favorite room between now and January 3, from 11 am to 5 pm (closed Christmas and New Year's days) | 109 Danforth St., Portland | 207.772.4841 |

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