STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Christmas is a holiday filled with various traditions. The Mercer Museum has one of its own. Every year, the museum offers “Under the Tree: A Century of Holiday Trees and Toys.” This is the fifth year for the Mercer’s annual holiday exhibit, which “captures the excitement of Christmas from a child’s point of view,” according to the museum’s website.
Maya Hartmann, Curator of Exhibits, said in a telephone interview that the exhibit shows the history of the tradition of Christmas trees from the 1800s to the present. It includes items from the Victorian Era through the post-World War II era and beyond. Displayed trees are decorated with period ornaments (and some reproductions). A majority of items are from the Mercer collection. Supplemental items, mostly toys from more recent generations, have been loaned to the museum by staff members.
“My Smurf house from 1976 is proudly on display,” Hartmann said. “It’s adorable.”
Usually, the exhibition features 12 trees in a larger gallery, but the Lego Castle Adventure exhibit, which lets kids of all ages construct their own castles with the iconic building set, is in that space. “It’s still super cool,” Hartmann said of the five trees showing the evolution of the Christmas tree tradition and toys representing more than 200 years of history.
Examples of older toys include a circa 1935 mechanical drummer that resembles toy soldiers people today might recognize and a Santa Claus figure in a sleigh circa 1923 that also is familiar. And even though the incarnations may differ, some are mainstays, like dolls, trains, games, and puzzles.
“The toys are universally relatable,” she said. “God willing, everybody had something to play with.”
And there are things to learn, too.
“The holidays are so based in tradition. To be able to see where the tradition of the Christmas tree itself began and how toys over the generations have changed is great,” she said. “It’s a very easy way to intimately connect with history through recognizing toys.”
Visiting the exhibit and seeing the museum’s halls decked for the holidays would be a fun family experience, she said.
“The building is unique in itself. To have the quality and extensiveness of the collection to see during the holidays and to have that extra atmospheric layer of the decorations and the poinsettias is nice,” she said.
In addition to “Under the Tree,” which runs through Jan. 3, families can play with toys and games of the past from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20 or 27. To see more holiday decorations, visitors can tour Fonthill Castle to see “Winter Wonderland: Holiday Decorations at Fonthill.” There, even more Victorian decorations and themed trees are displayed inside Henry Mercer’s castle, through Jan. 3 (call 215-348-9461 for pricing and reservations for that).
Hartmann hopes people will take in the sights this season, to relive their own Christmases past.
“I think there’s a sense of nostalgia,” she said.
And, of course, it’s an opportunity to make new memories, too.