Holidays Through History
If you’re looking for a holiday activity that’s educational, tasty, and won’t break the bank, this is it. The Holidays through History Open House, a partnership of three historic houses in DC, brings you through decades of tradition in celebrating, feasting, crafting, and toasting. I did it and wrote about it so you don’t have to - you’ll just want to.
The open house is choose your own adventure. Do what you want, in whatever order you want. I started with Dumbarton House, moved to the Woodrow Wilson House, and ended with the Anderson House. Not chronological, but I recommend this order as the Anderson House, the grandest of the three, also provided the festive finale.
Full disclosure: I was a sucker for the setup. The crisp night air was a refreshing break between stops, while couples and groups walked arm and arm between the houses. It was also a lovely way to work off the cookies.
So let’s go for a walk, shall we? Each historic house was decorated for Christmas, with festive cocktails and crafts designed for the time periods. First stop, Dumbarton House.
I went downstairs first, to… fortify myself with the refreshments. The first cocktail of the night was a wassail, and the kind gentleman pouring them wrote me an extensive list of the KFC-level herbs and spices involved. You can find one version here, but if you want to recreate it yourself without raiding a small garden, you can spike some apple cider and call it a day. Or a Wassail.
Turns out Wassail originally referred to a tradition of honoring trees, then a toast - often done with cider - before evolving to the encompass the festivities of visiting neighbors, singing carols, and sharing drinks. Sounds like a great party theme, one I’ll hold onto for January when everyone could use an excuse to celebrate.
Drink in hand, it was time for crafts.
Dumbarton House serves as national headquarters of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, and despite the drinks, and crafts, and truly excellent wallpaper, the highlight of the house is the exhibits inside. Women of Vision, for example, highlighted members of the society who led in politics, science, culture, education, and more. Wassail to that.
The crafts were fun enough for adults and easy enough for kids - or easy enough for adults also balancing a drink. While the quilling, pictured here, was darling, the paper ornament was my favorite. Brunt force by glue better matches my skill level.
The ornaments were found in the Woodrow Wilson House, where a gin and lemon cocktail called the Bees’ Knees serenaded my taste buds while a Steinway and warm Christmas carols serenaded everyone. A quick poll revealed this 1920s potion to be everyone’s favorite of the three. While I can’t pass you a sample of the drink, you can press play on this video to feel like you were there. Or at least my friend on Snapchat.
At this point I was sufficiently steeped in the holiday spirit- time for the grand finale. With a resplendent main hall and ornate detailing, the Anderson House feels like a celebration from the moment you step in. The cocktail was milk punch - WaPo says it’s cool again, guys - which is basically eggnog-lite. Too heavy to drink much of, but definitely decadent enough for the holidays. Isabel Anderson served it during a New Year's Day reception in 1909. Hair of the dog, anyone?
The Anderson house also hosts The Society of the Cincinnati, and enough art and artifacts to make it much more than a pretty face. That balance was found throughout the evening, and it’s why I recommend you add it to your calendar for next year as a creative, educational, and interactive way to celebrate the holidays.
In the meantime, the houses are each open year-round, and host classes, concerts, and even vintage game nights to keep you busy until the next season. Some other events, throughout the year:
- Feb 7: Vintage Game Night (Woodrow Wilson House - monthly)
- Feb 13: A Vintage Evening: Eighteenth-Century Chocolate Tasting (Anderson House)
- Feb 15: Dumbarton at Dusk (Dumbarton House - monthly)
- Feb 25: History Bites (Dumbarton House)
- March 11: Concert Series - Ragtime (Anderson House)
- Third Thursday of every month: Monthly cocktail party (Dumbarton House)
- July: Jane Austen Film Festival (Dumbarton House)
- August: Dolley Days (Dumbarton House)