Tourists who visit the Savannah Historic District during the holidays are sometimes disappointed there are no eye-popping lighting displays or elaborate tableaus around the restored houses.
There's no Grinch to blame. Residents of the historic district tend to decorate their homes in period style, with greenery and candles rather than blinking lights and cartoon figures.
After all, Christmas was a much different holiday in the 19th century, and the upcoming Savannah Holiday Tour of Homes, set for Dec. 14 and 15, reflects that. Sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Savannah Victorian Society, this year's tour features a new partnership with the Coastal Heritage Society.
"In Savannah and in all of the early American cities, the focus of the holidays was not a tree or gifts or excessively decorating your home," says Nora Fleming Lee, Coastal Heritage Society Tricentennial Park site administrator. "The focus was on extravagant meals with a very formal table setting."
As its part in the festivities, the CHS will present "The Lavish Table," a display of the types of elaborate table settings that would have been found in Savannah homes at Christmas in the 1800s. "It's a way to really go over the top, and it's how the holidays were celebrated," Lee says.
"We're bringing it back to a time when the holidays meant spending time together with friends and family with a less commercial way than Christmas is celebrated now," she says. "It's a time to bring out the very best of what you have, from china to crystal to silver to the food, including wine, Madeira, cheese and fruits."
Fruit was a real treat in Victorian days.
"It would be a special-occasion type of thing because it was expensive and difficult to get," Lee says.
Two different types of table settings will be displayed over a three-day period inside the Savannah History Museum.
"We're doing one big formal dining table and a smaller table that the ladies or gentlemen would have gone to for cocktails after the meal," Lee says.
The exhibit is being curated by local historian Hugh Golson and features pieces from his personal collection, including furniture and rugs.
"He's one of the Savannah's premiere historians," Lee says. "Everything he owns has a story attached to it."
Visitors will see what was considered a proper table setting for family functions.
"There will be a sample dinner menu with what would have been served at that time, including terrapin soup, which was a very popular dish, and raw oysters, things that are very appropriate to our Lowcountry culture," Lee says.
The Holiday Tour of Homes, the DNA's major fundraising event, includes tours of private homes and inns in the historic district. Tour proceeds are given back to the downtown community in the form of grants for projects supported by its members.
The afternoon tour will feature six houses with trolley transportation provided to each. The evening tours also will feature six homes, with cyclists on lighted bicycles singing Christmas carols along the route.
The Victorian Tea will be served by members of the Downtown Garden Club dressed in period costumes in a restored mansion on Gordon Street.
"This is our 39th annual Holiday Tour of Homes," says Gale Steves, chairwoman of tour. "We're pretty pleased in looking at the heritage of all that.
"We've got some really wonderful homes, but there's a disconnect between the visitor who somehow thinks we live and decorate back in history," she says. "Most of us want to be comfortable, and easy chairs are better than straight-backed ones."
At the holidays in the 1800s, the dining room was probably the most important room in the house, Steves says.
"I talked to Ron Melander, head of the Savannah Victorian Society, and said, 'Wouldn't it be fun if we could pull together two tables that show how Savannahians might have entertained in the 1870s, '80s and '90s?'" she says.
"What kinds of things would that have included? This is not Bloomingdale's, this is what used to be.
"We hope that people will stop by and take a look," Steves says. "This is an important part of the culinary and entertainment history for which the Hostess City is so well known."
The large table will present an 1890s family Christmas feast, Steves says. Although smaller, the second table has a history that is just as interesting, she says.
"Many times the men would entertain in each other's homes to discuss business, and it centered around Madeira, for which Savannah was famous at the time," Steves says. "We are setting up nibbles and hors d' oeuvres that you might have seen in the 1890s. The table was lavish, whether it was a simple meal or a very elaborate meal."
An estimated 500 to 600 people are expected to take part in the tours.
"We decided to do the daytime homes near Forsyth Park with trolley stops along the way," Steves says.
"People who have trouble walking or don't feel like walking can ride from Barnard Street to Habersham and visit six homes - five rather big ones and a small one. Each will have its own style of decoration."
Steves' house is included on the tour.
"I haven't had time to pull out all of the stuff, but people can find all kinds of Christmas ideas," she says.
The evening tour will feature houses along the east side of State Street from Habersham to Houston.
"It will be a nice way of ending the day with luminaries in front of the houses," Steves says. "It will be kind of like a candlelight tour."
The tour will appeal to local residents, as well as out-of-town visitors, Steves says.
"These homes are never open to the public," she says. "You can see why 'The Lavish Table' was a good balance for the event. It pushes entertaining to the extreme.
"This collaboration hopefully will be the first of many," Steves says. "Stay tuned for next year."
Lee also is confident "The Lavish Table" is just the first holiday partnership with the DNA and Victorian society.
"We're going to invest in doing something again in the future, probably representing how Savannahians in the past celebrated the holidays," she says.
"We do a Fourth of July program showing how people in the past celebrated the Fourth of July - or didn't celebrate it, in consideration of the Civil War," Lee says. "We're always trying to bring the past into the present to give people a glimpse of what life was like back then."