Ghosts of Christmases past 

The Davenport House and Springfield Plantation open their doors for holiday tours

BACK IN the early 19th century, New Year’s got all the glory in Savannah.

Christmas was a holiday for the children, but the adults had their fun on New Year’s Eve. Celebrations at the Isaiah Davenport House probably reflected the family’s Scottish heritage, says Jamie Credle, director of the house museum.

“We think they celebrated more visibly than they would have Christmas, so New Year’s is our focus,” Credle says. “We’re trying to make a link with today and the fact that it is so useful to recall a time when people were so glad just to live another year.”

From Dec. 26-30, the Davenport House will be open for evening tours so visitors can see period decorations and get a sense of what the holiday meant to people of that era. “Good beginnings make for good endings,” Credle says. “They would have a big meal for friends and loved ones and put on new outfits.”

The celebration would open with First Footing, an old tradition based in superstition. The first person to cross the doorway in the new year would portend either good luck or bad luck for the coming year.

“Everyone wanted a dark-headed bachelor for First Footing,” Credle says. “We had a docent who grew up in England who said her grandmother continued the tradition of First Footing.

“We talked about why wouldn’t the English want redheads or blonds to be the first through?” she asks. “Those were the invaders, the Norse and Vikings.”

The house is decorated with dried flower arrangements and greenery, since fresh flowers wouldn’t have been available. Christmas trees and Santa Claus were still in the future.

Gifts were given to the Davenport slaves as rewards for loyal service. By comparison, the Telfairs, who lived down the street, prepared and served a meal for their slaves and servants. “We don’t know if that happened here,” Credle says.

“If people did get gifts, it was an expression of love, not abundance,” she says. “We’ve got some wonderful family items, including the Davenport Bible, which is beautifully bound, with plates in it. It could have been given at Christmas.”

The rooms of the house are set up as they would have been for a holiday. “In the drawing room, the punch bowl has been set out,” Credle says. “We talk about Chatham Artillery Punch.”

A footnote in a cookbook that dates to 1933 mentions that the punch was served to President James Monroe when he visited Savannah. “That always gets a big laugh, because it is so potent,” Credle says. “You have to let it stew for 36 to 48 hours.”

A new acquisition also is being displayed — a child’s gloves in their original balsa-wood box. “The dining room table is our piece de resistance,” Credle says. “It’s set for a meal that normally would last two to three hours. We’ve got some new desserts. Fruitcake was covered in icing that would have protected it. We’ve got syllabub, which is sort of a frothy eggnog with creme on top, and pecan pie.”

While New Year’s is the focus, Christmas is discussed when the tour goes upstairs. “We talk about The Night Before Christmas, Clement Moore’s book, which was written during that time period,” Credle says.

“At that time, Christmas wasn’t child-centered, but it was moving that way,” she says. “In the boys’ room, we have toys out and stockings hung with care.

“It was fun, but different than what we know today,” Credle says. “It’s not intended to be anti-children, that’s just way it was then.”

The tours were set for the week between Christmas and New Year’s because that traditionally would have been a time of celebration. “I was always told it was a big week when people came to Savannah,” Credle says.

Down the road in Midway, the Springfield Plantation also will open its doors Dec. 26-30 for tours. The house is owned by mother and daughter Laura and Meredith Devendorf, who will conduct the tours.

“It’s been in our family since 1755 and was an original King’s Grant,” Meredith Devendorf says. “The house was constructed in the 1750s and part of the present house is on the foundations of the original house.”

A highlight of the tours will be the John Porter Stevens Heritage Camellia Garden, with many rare plants in full bloom. “It was started in the 1930s by my grandfather,” Devendorf says. “We have over 300 plants in bloom.”

The Devendorfs have doing conservation work at the house since the 1960s. “There are several hundred-year-old oak trees, and it is unspoiled,” Devendorf says. “It’s like stepping back in time. We’ll be giving walking tours of the grounds, then will come in and have gourmet high tea.”

The Devendorfs also own Melon Bluff Nature Preserve, but are in the process of setting up a foundation that will own and operate it. They will continue to own and operate Dunham Farms, which includes a tree farm, gardens, bed and breakfast inn and ecotourism destinations.

“When my mother was 12 years old, her father sat her down on a dock and said, ‘They’re never going to let you keep this,’” Devendorf says. “However, she’s actually added to what she received from her parents. But with taxes being what they are and the fact that I’m the only child and I don’t have kids, we’ve decided it’s best for the land to own itself,” she says.

If all goes well, Dunham Farms will eventually become part of the foundation. “We think it’s important to protect it here,” Devendorf says. “The public needs to have access to it, as well as researchers. It’s pretty much undisturbed uplands that won’t be developed, but will be used to promote preservation policies and direct smart growth rather than unmitigated sprawl.” cs

Holiday Evening Tours and New Year’s Celebration at the Davenport House

When: Dec. 26-30

Cost: $8 advance or $10 at the door adults, $5 or $7 children 6-18.

Info: 236-8097 or jcredle@savbusiness.net

Springfield Plantation Tour

Three-hour tours guided by descendants of the original owners. Aafternoon tea served in dining room.

Cost: $50 per person.

Info: Reservations required, call 880-4500


Speaking of Davenport House, Springfield Plantation

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Linda Sickler

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