By Tammy Davis
If you love history and want to get in the Christmas spirit, take a holiday tour with Historic Columbia.
For the Candelight and Carriage Tour, we parked on the street and walked into a pretty, gravel courtyard with white lights strung overhead. The crowd was mostly couples enjoying a romantic night out. If they weren’t holding hands when they arrived, I bet there were before the night ended. Candlelight and carolers and carriage rides made it feel like a Columbia edition of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
Craft & Draft had a table in the middle of the courtyard, and Drip Coffee had the mobile unit on site. People dressed in festive coats and scarves milled about the grounds light by torches. I ducked in the giftshop long enough to warm up. I regret not getting one of the t-shirts that said, “Sherman Proof.”
We got our wrist bands and headed for the Hampton-Preston Mansion. There was a line, but the wait forced you to slow down and get in the spirit. A group singing 19th century Christmas carols in front of the home added to the festive ambiance. Candles lit the way up the grand front steps. Once we got inside, a volunteer gave a little history of the house. I knew she was going to be a good guide, and she did not let me down.
I was disappointed with the fake greenery, but the explanation made perfect sense. As a history buff, I expected to know most of her script, but I learned a lot. I appreciated the way she shared the point of view of the enslaved people. For them, the holidays meant extra work – decorations to tend to, more guests to serve, and special food to prepare.
Our Hampton-Preston tour ended in the parlor where a little Christmas tree sat on top of a table in the center of the room. Guests were serenaded with more carols provided by another group of volunteers. I didn’t want to leave.
Next stop was the Robert Mills House. With yet a third set of carolers to entertain us, nobody minded the wait. A few people sang along softly or hummed. It was lovely.
Most South Carolinians know a little about Robert Mills, the famous architect who designed some of our nation’s most prominent buildings, including the Washington Monument. I had no idea the house had been abandoned and faced demolition around 1960. Thank goodness for preservation groups like Historic Columbia.
You could spend half a day in this house. It was fun to see examples of the symmetry for which Robert Mills is known, the false door in the entry way, for example. This house was full of surprises like the dining room buffet with a drawer lined with lead for keeping ice and beverages cool. I usually know my way around a formal dining room setting but had to ask what the glass containers that looked like half an ice bucket were. Turns out, folks used them for rinsing out their wine glass each time a new wine was introduced. Sounds like a fun Christmas dinner to me.
I loved learning the history of the houses and seeing the china and the furnishings, but my favorite part of the evening was hearing about the simplicity of the season during the early 19th century. The families living in these homes were wealthy, prominent people who could have had anything, yet, they kept gifts and decorations to a minimum. For most families during this time, entertaining was the priority. They kept their focus on spending time with friends and family. There’s a history lesson for us all.
We ended our evening with a carriage tour. It was a crisp, cold night with a full moon shining overhead. We passed the Maxcy Gregg House, the Seibels House, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and more. One of my favorite houses had been used for sanctuary during the Civil War. Sherman had planned to burn that house down, but when the troops arrived and saw that southerners had taken in a Union soldier they spared the home. Another house was spared because nuns had set up temporary headquarters. The tour guide shared one interesting story after another, all within a city block.
Yes, if you want to get into the Christmas spirit and learn a little more SC history, sign up for one of these tours. Even though the greenery is faux, the halls are decked, and the staff and volunteers are merry. ‘Tis the season to be jolly in the Historic Columbia district. Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tammy Davis is a local writer. She plans to go back to the Historic Columbia gift shop so she can pick up a t-shirt and a few books.