Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas with the Clemens Family

Christmas at the Mark Twain House is one of my favorite times of the year. The house is transformed into something even more beautiful and exquisite, if you can believe it. We're fortunate that Sam and the family wrote down so many of their memories of Christmas; it was a special time for the family and we're honored to be able to share their memories with so many visitors during the holiday season. I thought it would be nice to share some of these stories and photos for those of you who haven't been able to visit the home during the holidays. Mind you, the photos do little justice to the actual feeling of being inside the house, so I hope you'll make your way to Hartford to visit anyhow. But for now, as you read on let yourself imagine that you are visiting the house on Christmas Eve day, 1881.

You pull up to the house in your horse-drawn sleigh and your coachman helps you step down. You walk up to the front door and knock and wait for their butler George to greet you and welcome you into the house. As you enter the home you are in awe at how the lights twinkle off the stenciling in the front hall, and the beautiful greenery they have carefully placed on the mantle and above each doorway. As you enter further you glance at the fireplace and you see two bootprints on the floor. George takes your coats and from the next room a little girl runs out to say hello. She sees you looking at the bootprints and tells you that Santa left those there years back and told the girls not to clean it up as it would be a reminder to them to be good all year long. She leads you into the next room where Mr. Clemens, Mrs. Clemens and the other two daughters, Clara and Jean are waiting to greet you and wish you a Merry Christmas. Susy, Clara and Jean show off their decorations that they've made for the Christmas tree. Paper ornaments, crochet snowflakes, popcorn and cranberries and tinsel adorn the tree. The tree has just been decorated and the scent of the fresh green tree fills the room. You sit near Mrs. Clemens and tea is brought into the room. She tells you that this holiday season has been so busy and a bit hectic with the decorators still finishing the decorating within the first floor of the house, and putting together all of the gift baskets that you saw in the front hall which are to be delivered to some of the needy families in Hartford this evening and of course, shopping for the girls. Speaking of the girls, they've just begun playing the piano and singing Christmas carols and are encouraging you to sing along! "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!" After the song, you stand up to say good-bye, as you have a few other friends to see before the day is over. Mrs. Clemens asks if you'd like to see the rest of the first floor before you leave, she knows the girls would like to show you what they've been working on. She walks you through the dining room, where the table is set for what is sure to be an elegant dinner this evening. On the table, there is a beautiful silver centerpiece. You ask her where she got the epergne, and she tells you it was on the table during their wedding reception, a gift. You follow her into the library where there is a fire crackling in the fireplace and the table is covered in paper, string and popcorn. The girls have been busy at work finishing the last of the ornaments for the tree. They've spend the past few days popping corn in the fireplace and stringing it along with the cranberries, crocheting and cutting out paper snowflakes, and making cornucopias to fill with nuts. In the alcove there are scraps of cloth and sewing materials and Mrs. Clemens tells you that the girls made doll clothes for a cousin of theirs as a gift and haven't cleaned their mess yet. As she walks you back into the front hall to have George gather your coat you peek back into the drawing room where the girls are talking animatedly with their father, relaxed now that their duty to entertain is over... for now. Their house is simply enchanting with the decorations, festive and yet homey. The girls have helped to decorate and it's clear that this is a family home and they are all so happy to be here together celebrating the holiday.

George helps you into your coat and you say good-bye to Mrs. Clemens and walk outside to your sleigh, waiting to take you to your next destination. You look back the house as you leave and through the window you can see that Mrs. Clemens has joined the family in the drawing room, and it is picture perfect, seeing them all together in their beautiful home.

(Photo credits for the front door, front hall, drawing room and dining room to Hunter Neal)


“Joy, and peace be with you and about you, and the benediction of God rest upon you this day! …There is something beautiful about all that old hollowed Christmas legend! It mellows a body – it warms the torpid kindnesses and charities into life. And so I hail my darling, with a great, big, whole-hearted Christmas blessing. God be and abide with her evermore.” -Mark Twain, to his wife Olivia, Christmas of 1871.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Spirit of the Season!

I stumbled upon this great website today. It's called Redefine Christmas, and is based out of Westport, CT and it aimed at getting people to "change the way we look at giving and receiving." As a little kid Christmas was all about getting presents and asking Santa for toys and dolls and clothes. As I got older it was still fun to get presents but I began getting involved with food drives and volunteering at the food pantry to help put baskets together. I began to realize that during this season of family and giving, there were families out there who couldn't afford to give presents to their kids or make a nice meal. Christmas and the holidays should be about not only giving to your family, but giving to others as well. Redefine Christmas is working to create awareness about this simple idea that so many have forgotten and is hoping that people will give donations as gifts to charities and to the less fortunate. It's a wonderful idea and it's so nice to see a website (and Facebook and Twitter) dedicated to this cause.

It reminded me also of the Clemens' Christmas. Every year the family would exchange gifts, the girls would get letters from Santa and presents laid out in their classroom to open on Christmas morning. And an important tradition that they took part in every year was to create gift baskets for the poor in Hartford. According to Katy Leary, their housekeeper, “She [Livy] always had a crowd of people, children and old people and grown-up people, too, depending on her and she fixed them up wonderful baskets with a big turkey and cans of peas and tomatoes and vegetables and then, oh, a bottle of wine and a great big box of candy, and nuts and raisins, and then there was always some stockings and underwear and a few pretty things, too. She used to give every one of them a present, individual-like, extra. She knew, it seems to me, just what each person wanted most and she shopped for weeks before Christmas, doing up all those things and having all those baskets ready…” And then on Christmas Eve the Clemens girls would get dressed up in their winter outfits and get in the sleigh with Patrick the coachman and deliver the baskets to the needy families they were created for. Livy continued this practice well into the time when the family was having financial hardship, knowing that there were other families who were still less fortunate than they.

Let's all invoke the spirit of Livy and remember that we have the ability to help make someone else's holiday better. Make a donation is someone's name as a gift, or ask that others do it for you as your gift.

Happy holidays!


“Joy, and peace be with you and about you, and the benediction of God rest upon you this day! …There is something beautiful about all that old hollowed Christmas legend! It mellows a body – it warms the torpid kindnesses and charities into life. And so I hail my darling, with a great, big, whole-hearted Christmas blessing. God be and abide with her evermore.” -Mark Twain, to his wife Olivia, Christmas of 1971