A Look Back at the Holidays in Victorian Zionsville

victorian holidays

November 2017

Writer / Janelle Morrison        Photography / Submitted and JJ Kaplan


During the Victorian era, the holidays were celebrated in a much different fashion than they are today. The geography of where one lived played a large part in what people would have eaten for their celebratory meal and what types of decorations they might have donned in their homes. In rural areas, such as Zionsville, one would expect that lavish decorations and magnificent meals were not as commonplace as most of the early settlers were farmers and lived more modestly and practically.

Holiday traditions, such as the head of the household reading the Gospel story of the Nativity, continue in some households today. Following the reading, there may have been an exchange of homemade gifts among members of the household that were typically more practical in nature. Some were fortunate to have received homemade gifts like sleds, ice skates, buckskin dolls or homemade treats and popcorn balls.

The family would sit together for a meal that would have been prepared hours in advance. Wild turkey was a common centerpiece along with homemade preserves. Depending on the family’s heritage, some Germanic families would decorate their trees with fruit, nuts and candy. Wealthier families would decorate their trees with expensive blown-glass ornaments.

Common pastimes would include taking a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon into town for communal ice skating and sleighing. During the Victorian era, candy pulls, charades and ice skating parties were a way to come together and enjoy your family and townsfolk.victorian holidays

Another common practice, though practiced in different settings based on one’s status in society, was the coming together for tea.

British high tea began in the mid-1700s as an afternoon meal for the working class, usually served between 3-4 p.m. and taken standing up or on tall stools, thus “high” tea. In contrast, afternoon tea was tea taken while sitting in comfortable chairs. Afternoon tea was introduced in 1840 by the seventh Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess would become hungry by 4 in the afternoon, and the evening meal was served at 8 p.m. In rural (working class) areas, the midday meal was called dinner, and the evening meal (around 6 p.m.) was called tea. In social upper-class circles, midday tea (meal/snack) was tea. The Duchess of Bedford starting inviting friends for tea with sandwiches and snacks. The pause for tea became a fashionable 1880s upper-class societal get-together where women would dress in long gowns, gloves and hats.

To honor the town’s Victorian heritage and traditions, the SullivanMunce Cultural Center (SMCC) is hosting an afternoon tea during this year’s Christmas in the Village festivities. The SMCC is hosting the tea on Saturday, December 16 from 1-2:30 p.m. at their facility. Reservations need to be made by Saturday, December 9. The museum will close at noon that day for regular business but will be open for anyone signed up for the tea.

“This event is primarily planned and staffed by our SullivanMunce Guild, a group of volunteers that support the SullivanMunce Cultural Center,” said Cynthia Young, executive director of SMCC. “The Guild started the tea in 2016 when the Chamber expanded Christmas in the Village to a month-long celebration. The Guild decided to add the tea to extend Victorian holidays at the SullivanMunce. On the traditional weekend of Christmas in the Village, which is the first weekend in December, we have traditions of our own, which includes the Guild Bake Sale; the chili bowl sale; First Come, First Hung exhibit; and children’s activities. We had 20-25 attendees at our afternoon tea last year.victorian holidays

“Our guests will experience a Victorian afternoon tea complete with clotted cream, cookies, cakes, tea sandwiches and scones. A short talk about the history of tea will be included along with a favor to take home. Guests are welcome to dress in period costume, wear a fun hat or come as they are. Anyone can attend, and we encourage parents/children or grandparents/grandchildren, women’s group outings, etc.”

Attendees of the SullivanMunce Cultural Center Afternoon Tea need to register by calling 317-873-4900 by Saturday, December 9. For a complete list of activities this winter season at the SMCC, visit sullivanmunce.org.