Three historic houses in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park are part of a Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol tour. Characters from the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit wait in the conserved, Colonial buildings for visitors on rare nighttime tours.
Last Wednesday, the trolley left from the Philadelphia Museum or Art, which manages Mt Pleasant, Cedar Grove, and Lemon Hill, three historic houses built in the 18th century.
“Hello! Hello! Welcome one and all,” chirped Holly, a giddy colonial character performed by Megan Slater who engages with travelers on the trolley between houses.
For 45 years the Art Museum has offered trolley tours of the historic houses it manages, but nighttime tours — with the houses lit up — are more rare. This is the second year it produced an evening tour with actors. The only runs were on Wednesday, December 16th, and this evening, December 18th.
On the way the first stop, Mount Pleasant mansion, Holly peppered her chatter with historic tidbits: early American Christmas celebrations were nothing like they are today. Many original Puritans looked down on revelry. For a short time in late-17th century, Massachusetts made Christmas illegal.
“For the places that did not outlaw Christmas, it was a decidedly adult holiday,” explained Holly.
Revelers in the 18th century celebrated Twelfth Night with eating, drinking, and dancing, just as Charles Dickens’ character Mr. Fezziwig did. He you will remember was the original employer of a young Scrooge.
At the Mount Pleasant, Mr. Fezziwig (played by Robert DaPonte in powdered wig and festive breeches) lays out a sideboard of Christmas oysters and syllabub. “That’s a delicious drink made by milking a cow directly into a jug of cider,” said Fezziwig before leading visitors through a few steps of social dancing.
The Mount Pleasant mansion was built in 1761 by a one-armed, Scottish privateer (a state-sanctioned pirate) John MacPherson. At the time it was the most elegant mansion in Pennsylvania.
In contrast, the Cedar Grove house — a simple Quaker home built in 1750 — would not have seen any kind of Christmas celebration due to Quaker reluctance to treat the day different from any other. Nevertheless, visitors see the house decked with a decorated tree as Mrs. Cratchit (played by Sarah Fraunfelder with a nervous laughter) prepares a goose on the hearth.
“You all look so lovely!” said an overworked Mrs. Cratchit, seemingly surprised to see two dozen onlookers in her small kitchen. “I find I can do well with ribbons. They help transform a hand-me-down gown into something you might find in the fashionable London shops.”
The final stop on the tour, Lemon Hill Mansion, was built in 1800 by the wealthy Philadelphia merchant Henry Pratt as a summer retreat. It would have been unlikely to host a celebration in winter. However, visitors see Scrooge attempting to festoon his house with Christmas cheer.
Site manager Justina Barrett co-created the tour, allowing certain interpretive liberties in the houses during the holidays.
“It’s an opportunity to see them decorated for the holiday, and an opportunity to see them at night, which is very special,” said Barrett. “But this audience wants to get their Dickens fill as well. So you’re really checking off two boxes.”
One of the audience members is David Emes, who is a big fan of Charles Dickens but had no idea there were historic houses in Fairmount Park.
“I was completely unaware of their existence or their history. I’m from Reading. Don’t have a lot of knowledge of that aspect of Philadelphia,” said Emes.
Just as the tour plays with history a bit, it also plays with the story of A Christmas Carol. There are no ghosts, no Tiny Tim, no rattling chains of regret. The character are scripted to provide a little insight into Ye Olde Christmas.
A lot of these people are here because they want to see the houses,” said co-creator Bradley Wrenn, who plays Scrooge at Lemon Hill. “Sometimes we get out of the way and let the houses do the talking. They are so beautiful.”
Wrenn plays a reformed Scrooge, a man who has already had his personal transformation into accepting holiday joy, but is still unsure how to behave.
“I’m new to this whole jolly Christmas, deck the halls, piggy pudding barumpahpumpum,” Scrooge tells his visitors. “I’m not sure I’m doing it quite right.”
The Christmas tree in Lemon Hill mansion will not light up until there is sufficient Christmas spirit in the room. Like the climax of the film “Elf,” some group caroling will do the trick in the end.
“It’s not War and Peace, we’re talking about a loose narrative arc,” said Wrenn. “We’re traveling to see Scrooge.”