In the beloved holiday story "A Christmas Carol," the miserly Scrooge discovers the true spirit of the season from visits from the spirits of Christmas past, present and future. But it is in the past, where he retraces his steps with the perspective of time and history, that he makes his most meaningful finds. Revisiting the past gives all of us a sense of where we have been and where we are going. Right in your own backyard you can choose from a number of historic homes and mansions to transport yourself to your own "Christmas Past," and bask in the traditions and carols of centuries ago.
Morven, past home of five New Jersey governors, located on five acres in the heart of downtown Princeton, will be open for "A New Jersey Christmas at Morven." The house will be lushly decorated for the holidays with music and refreshments lending to the festive Yuletide atmosphere. "A New Jersey Christmas" kicks off with a preview party on Sunday, December 4, from 4 to 6 p.m. From Wednesday, December 7 through January 6, the historic house will be open Wednesdays through Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for two special exhibits in the holiday setting.
First, there is the Festival of Trees. Martha Leigh Wolf, executive director of Morven, says, "We’ll have 13 hand-decorated trees on display in each of the 13 galleries and rooms in the house. This is the first time the second floor will be open to the public." The Festival of Trees at Morven will have a tent up all month long. Over the weekend of December 3 and 4 there will be music, and starting December 4 there will be tables and chairs set up with complimentary hot cider and cookies. Advance orders for box lunches can be made. The museum shop will be open and a special Morven ornament has been created for the event. It is an enameled Christmas tree ornament to commemorate the Festival of Trees and will also be available as a lapel pin.
In addition to the Festival of Trees, Wolf says that there will be a special exhibit of "Gifts To Morven" – fun, quirky, unusual gifts that have been bestowed upon Morven over the years. "There’s something called a chest-on-chest, a highboy that’s been in the house for a very long time. The story goes that it was given to the Stockton family by George Washington," says Wolf.
Other new gifts to the collection include those given by the Sons of the Revolution in New Jersey: 18th century furniture, including a walnut desk and a walnut dining table. There is also a painting of George Washington, a copy of a famous Gilbert Stuart painting of the first president, but over 100 years old, nonetheless.
More recent gifts include those from Sheila Johnson, adopted daughter of Robert Wood Johnson, who lived in the house for 18 years, starting in 1928. Now on the board of Morven, she splits her time between Switzerland and Bermuda and comes into town four times a year for board meetings.
She spent 10 years of her childhood living at Morven and has given mementoes of those happy times as donations for the exhibit. One of those items is a bear named "Tedsy." Wolf says Johnson "was given a teddy bear when she first arrived at the house after her adoption. He was with her all the time, and when she took him with her to college, her friends joked that they would throw him out the window.
"We have a great cultural heritage in our area, and we’re looking for ways to bring it all to the forefront," says Wolf. "We have an especially rich history here in New Jersey and in the future we want to focus on our state and make people aware of our traditions."
For more than 200 years Morven has played a role in the history of New Jersey and the nation. It was originally part of a 5,500-acre tract purchased from William Penn in 1701 by the first Richard Stockton to settle in Princeton. In 1754, his grandson, Richard Stockton, one of the leading attorneys in the American colonies and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, acquired 150 acres of this land for a house. His wife, Annis Boudinot Stockton, was a prolific poet who named their house "Morven" after a mythical Gaelic kingdom in the epic poems of Ossian.
Four more generations of Stocktons resided at Morven through the early 20th century. Although all made significant contributions to their community, Commodore Robert Stockton (1795-1869) became particularly well known as a United States naval hero and president of the Delaware and Raritan Canal.
General Robert Wood Johnson, chairman of Johnson & Johnson, was the first non-family member to reside at Morven (1928-1944). He was followed by five New Jersey governors when Morven served as the state’s first Governor’s Mansion (1945-1981). In 1982, the Governor’s Mansion was relocated to nearby Drumthwacket and Morven began its conversion to a museum. A comprehensive restoration program was completed in 2003 and the museum opened in 2004.
Wolf says that as executive director of this historic jewel, "basically, I have to steer the ship, set the standard for quality, set the agenda, and make sure that everybody on the team is working toward the same goal."
Wolf has been married over 30 years to Erick Wolf, an area manager for General Motors who travels the east coast. They are expecting their first grandchild next year from their son Packard, in his early 30s, an intellectual property lawyer in California. Wolf and her husband live in Pennsylvania with two Australian cattle dogs.
She grew up in a small town in upstate New York. Her father worked in the automobile industry but was an avid student and lover of history. Her mother is now a garden guide at Winterthur, also a museum and garden, in Wilmington, Delaware. "I’m grateful to her for being even-tempered and happy and having that influence on me. She never had a career when I was growing up, but now I’ve had an influence on her. It’s fun when we get together and ‘talk shop,’"
When she was 15 years old, her family moved to the Philadelphia. She attended the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware, a private high school, then studied art history at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She also studied museum management at the University of Delaware. She then pursued her passion for living history, art, and architecture by working at some illustrious historic sites, including the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She also worked at the Historic Bartrams Garden in Philadelphia, America’s oldest living botanical garden located on the former 18th century farmstead of John Bartram.
"Princeton provides a comfortable setting for Christmas activity and spirit," says Wolf. "Come to Morven and catch the holiday spirit. We’ve put together a gracious preservation, not overly loud or commercial. It will be an exquisite experience."
Just down the street from Morven the current governor’s residence at Drumthwacket, built in 1835 on land that witnessed the Princeton battle of the American Revolution. The house will be open to the public for the very popular December open houses, featuring spectacular seasonal decorations by New Jersey’s finest garden clubs.
The theme for this year is New Jersey Heritage and each of the garden clubs participating will interpret their own room with elegant natural garden materials. This year’s garden club participants include clubs from Brielle, Bridgewater, Essex Fells, Fair Haven, Sea Girt, New Providence, New Vernon, Princeton, Spring Lake, Tenafly, and Westfield.
The open houses are scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on three Wednesdays, November 30, and December 7 and 14; and one Sunday, December 11. Reservations are required. Visitors are encouraged to reserve online at www.drumthwacket.org or call 609-683-0591.
The 23rd annual holiday open house, Sunday, December 4, from 1 to 4 p.m., at the William Trent House Complex, on Market Street across from the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, will feature the fully restored 1719 house open for tours. Guests will be greeted by museum staff wearing clothing similar to what would have been worn in William Trent’s day. The afternoon of family fun is free of charge and there is ample free parking in the adjacent parking lots.
The William Trent House was built in 1719 by William Trent, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who established his country seat at the Falls of the Delaware River in what came to be known as the city of Trenton.
The open house will also debut one of the newly-furnished second floor bedchambers. House furnishings reflect the 1726 inventory of William Trent and are a combination of period pieces and reproductions. As guests wander throughout the house they will learn about the William Trent household and enjoy the artistry of the Garden Club of Trenton, which annually bedecks the site using traditional greens and natural materials.
Holiday refreshments will accompany the annual "greens sale," including a variety of fresh cut greens including winterberry, boxwood, several types of pine, and holly as well as decorated wreaths. The Trent House Association Gift Shop will feature a vintage ornament sale.
The afternoon will also includespecial holiday "Colonial Kids" activities for children ages 6 to 11. Activities may include making scented sachets, candied orange peels, and toys and games. "Colonial Kids" is an ongoing program, available during weekend tour hours whenchildren are given a sample of the way 18th century children lived through a variety of hands-on activities.
Owned, maintained, and operated by the City of Trenton, the building has been open to the public as an historic house museum since 1939. The museum is open daily from 12:30 to 4:00 p.m. Group tours can be arranged at other times by advance reservation. For additional information and directions call 609-989-3027 or visit www.williamtrenthouse.org.
At William Penn’s 17th-century plantation in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, you and your family can step back in time at the annual Holly Nights, two enchanted evenings on Thursday and Friday, December 8 and 9, 5:30 to 9 p.m. The family-oriented celebration features the lighting of hundreds of luminaries, candles, and torches to lend a festive atmosphere and cast a warm glow around the 43-acre historic site.
Visitors can follow the pathways to the Yule log bonfire to warm up or toss in a sprig of green. This traditional "Burning of the Green" is said to represent past woes and to assure good luck in the New Year. Music will be provided by a variety of musical and vocal ensembles. Demonstrations of open hearth cooking, blacksmithing, and soap-making by colonial craftspeople dressed in period clothing will be ongoing throughout the evening. At the Manor House, visitors will be greeted by guides in colonial dress for a candlelit tour of the house decorated for the holidays.
Admission is $6; $5 for senior citizens; $4 for children 6 to 1; children 5 and under are free. There is a maximum admission of $20 per family (living in the same household). Free parking and hot-mulled cider are included with admission. For more information call 215-946-0400 or 215-443-3481. Pennsbury Manor is located just outside Tullytown in southeastern Bucks County, approximately 10 minutes from Exit 29 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and 15 minutes from Bristol/Route 413 exit off I-95.
Mill Hill House Tour
The annual tour of renovated and restored historic homes in the Mill Hill neighborhood of Trenton takes place S aturday, December 3, noon to 5 p.m. The neighborhood traces its founding back to 1679 when a small band of Quakers built Trenton’s first grist mill on the banks of the Assunpink Creek. Mill Hill remains a neighborhood of gaslit streets and 19th century rowhouses, protected as a registered historic landmarks area. Victorian brick townhouses are intermingled with an occasional Gothic Revival wood frame house, Federalist, and Second Empire architecture.
The tour begins at Mill Hill Playhouse. Featured is the restored House of Decision, the historic Alexander Douglass House, built in 1766, and maintained today as a cornerstone of the neighborhood by the Trenton Historical Society. In 1777 the house was used by General Washington and his troops for the war council at which they planned the Second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton.
The cost is $20 and proceeds benefit the Old Mill Hill Society. Call 609-656-9277 or visit www.oldmillhillsociety.org.
Kuser Farm Mansion
This 1892 Queen Anne "summer country home" of the Kuser Family, renowned for their interest in the motion picture industry holds an annual holiday open house in Hamilton, featuring 18 decorated rooms, more than 40 Victorian style goosefeather and snow trees, an 1890s dollhouse, Victorian dolls and toys, and holiday tunes from the past, reproduced from antique music boxes, harp, piano, and dulcimer. In the cellar the Jersey Valley Model Railroad Club holds its open house with an elaborate train display.
Admission is free. The open house takes place Wednesday, November 30, and Thursday through Sunday, December 1 to 4, 6 to 8:30 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday, December 7 to 9, 6 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, December 10, noon to 3 p.m.; and Sunday, December 11, 6 to 9 p.m. A Christmas tree lighting ceremony takes place Wednesday, November 30, at 6 p.m. For information call 609-890-3632.