Every Christmas season, the finest example of Greek Revival residential architecture in the western United States takes on a nostalgic glow.
The 23-room Banning Museum was built in 1864 as a mansion for Phineas Banning, one of the chief visionaries of what would become the port and city of Los Angeles. One of the most popular times of the year at the venue is its annual Victorian Christmas weekend, hosted by the nonprofit Friends of Banning Museum. Each year a different theme presents another facet of the celebrations of the Banning family’s heyday, with the residence festooned in period decorations.
At Home in Their Home
The mansion’s activity center was the living room, where the family’s large Christmas tree was displayed during the holiday season. The most common holiday decorations at the time were natural wreaths and garlands, along with richly colored and patterned ribbons. Greenery was a primary adornment, ranging from garlands of pine to strings of dried cranberries, which were placed on headboards, buffets and banisters. Homemade garlands were created by overlapping sprigs of evergreen on long strings of twine. They were then festooned with ribbons, poinsettias and other elements. A popular choice was Della Robbia faux fruit, inspired by a Renaissance sculptor famous for his interpretations of fruit.
Commercial decorations weren’t common in Phineas Banning’s day—those that were available were extremely costly—and it was not common to store away items to be used only once a year. The most costly ornaments were mouth-blown glass baubles from Bavaria that came in traditional shapes such as pickles and carrots.
Handmade ornaments were popular in Victorian times. They ranged from simple pinecones to cookies hung by ribbons to the more elaborate creations found on the Banning family tree.
The ornaments in the Banning Museum living room today were handmade by the museum’s volunteers, from materials either from or reminiscent of the Victorian era. Paper chains, cardboard cornucopia candy holders and bird nests join paper scrap ornaments made in Banning’s time from embellished chromolithographs.
After opening presents and enjoying their Christmas meal, the Banning family might have sung carols like “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree” and “I Heard the Bells” gathered around the living room’s English piano, which was shipped around Cape Horn, Chile, in order to reach the residence.
The family also played games and told ghost stories in the living room. In the popular “bag and stick” game, children were blindfolded, spun around and given the chance to hit a bag suspended from the ceiling that was filled with candy and toys. But in the dining room or in the presence of other adults, the children were expected to be little ladies and gentlemen.
Having a Ball
Throughout the year, and in the holiday season in particular, the Banning family entertained frequently. As their home was so remote, the entertainments could last several days. For celebrations or commemorations like the end of the Civil War or the assassination of President Lincoln, Banning addressed the crowds from his second-story balcony. Some occasions merited a giant cauldron of frijoles (Mexican beans), which would be distributed among the crowd.
The mansion’s long, narrow entrance hall was the perfect place to dance the Virginia reel at the family’s many regales, or balls. Doors at either end provided cross-ventilation for the governors, senators, Army officers and other guests in attendance. As the critical first view a guest would have upon entering the home, the hall was sumptuously decorated for the holidays as was the parlor, where men sipped Madeira wine and discussed politics.
This year, the Banning Museum will begin its Victorian Christmas celebrations with a luncheon on Friday, November 30th. The Christmas Open House (free admission!) will be on Saturday and Sunday, December 1st and 2nd. To find out more about these events, click here.
by Candace Yacono
Photography by Jaimee Itagaki