What did celebrating Christmas in the early 1900s look like? This Ridgefield exhibit shows you

RIDGEFIELD — Though the Gilbert family was known to host Christmas in Manhattan prior to Cass Gilbert’s death in 1934, a new exhibit at Keeler Tavern Museum imagines what the holiday would’ve looked like if they had spent it in Ridgefield.

“A Family Christmas at the Cannon Ball House,” opening Friday, marks the museum’s first-ever dedicated holiday display. The exhibit will be located in the tavern’s Gilbert wing, which will be decorated with Christmas trimmings from the early 20th century.

Chief Curator Catherine Prescott explained that this time period “solidified” the American Christian identity, which she said was born from an “amalgamation” of traditions and customs unique to late 19th-century immigrants.

“We always talk about America as a melting pot and Christmas really showcases that,” she added. “I hope visitors, when they come to see it, reflect on where these traditions came from and … the fact that they’re newer than we really think.”

By the turn of the 20th century, Christmas celebrations began to resemble the modern-day gatherings we’re familiar with today — a festive, family-oriented event with decorated trees, gift-giving and Santa Claus.

“In the 18th and 19th century ... at least for the residents of the Keeler Tavern, they did not really celebrate Christmas the way we did today,” Prescott said. “It was a much more subdued holiday, and much more focused on religion, on going to church and the spiritual aspect of it.”

The exhibit highlights how families celebrated Christmas and participated in winter activities, and will feature an array of pieces from the museum’s archives. Some of the items on display were borrowed from Keeler’s board members, including a reproduction of an early 20th-century dollhouse and vintage ornaments from the 1930s.

The exhibit will also include: a tree decorated with a variety of period ornaments; a miniature Putz Christmas village and train; popular toys from the early 20th-century, like Raggedy Anne and Andy, Teddy Bear and Lincoln Logs; winter clothing; sleds and skates; and an elaborate Christmas dinner spread.

Head of Communications and Grants Katie Burton said the exhibit is geared towards families and children, and will include a scavenger hunt and other activities designed to engage younger visitors.

Since the holidays often evoke feelings of nostalgia, Prescott said, the exhibit inherently relates to Keeler’s goal of accurately maintaining historical identity and memory. This concept will be further examined through the museum’s forthcoming reinterpretation project, made possible through a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On Tuesday, Keeler hosted a virtual program with Western Connecticut State University professor Dr. Leslie Lindenauer, who last year was recruited to research and write a site history of the museum.

The report, in her words, focused on “how to capitalize more intentionally on the rich history that Keeler Tavern Museum is a steward of; to suggest a pivot in the narrative that overlays key themes onto that history; to lean into the history that is difficult or uncomfortable to address; and to promote the museum’s stories in ways that help the community to identify fruitful links between the past and present,” according to a release.

Presenting “A Family Christmas at the Cannon Ball House” in the Gilbert wing is representative of how the museum hopes to present history in a more intentional way, Burton said.

“It’s part of that renewed focus we have on being more aware of our storytelling practices rather than just throwing stuff up (on the walls),” she added. “It’s linking (the artifacts) to larger narratives, and understanding the implications of those narratives.”

For more information about Keeler’s latest exhibit or the reinterpretation project, visit keelertavernmuseum.org.