This article was taken from the Winter 2014 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Every year a party held one afternoon in late November or early December gives St. David’s its own touch of Christmas magic. It happens at Carter House, one of Bermuda’s oldest houses and a much loved museum that sits atop a hill in St. David’s. On any day of the year this tiny eighteenth- century house is charming with its quaintly bumpy roof, stepped chimney and a welcoming arms staircase at the entrance.
The history of Carter House goes back to the time before the Second World War, before the era of the American base and the airport, when St. David’s was mostly farmland and cedar and palmetto forest. Its picturesque southern coastline was edged with mangroves, forming natural boatyards and overlooking islands around the rim of Castle Harbour. The earliest inhabitants of Carter House were probably John and Martha Hayward who may have built it during the 1720s. Martha was a descendent of Edward Carter, after whom the house is named. He was one of the three men who lived alone on Smith’s Island until the Plough arrived in 1612 to start Bermuda’s first official settlement. It is possible he lived in a palmetto-thatched cedar cabin on the same site.
At the beginning of the war, the house was actually being used as a barn by Howard Smith who was famous for his hybrid lily creation, the Lilium Howardii. The 19 acres of farmland next to the house were filled with lilies which he would sell to New York. Once the Churchill/Roosevelt agreement was reached to create the American base and the airport, Smith had to sell the land for half its value. But the barn miraculously remained safe and was used by the Americans as a post office and then as a beauty parlour. In the 1970s, it was converted into a museum providing information mostly about the base but also about St. David’s. With the demise of the base in 1995, it was decided the property should go back to the people of St. David’s and so the present museum, commemorating an almost forgotten way of life, was opened in 2001.
It is the St. David’s Historical Society, headed by Rick Spurling, which makes sure Carter House has its own Christmas celebrations. Members Ronnie Chameau and Deanna Smith take charge of the decorations and are the ideal persons to do so since Ronnie is famous for her traditional Bermuda crafts, her Bermuda angels in particular, and Deanna is an active member of every floral society that exists on the island. Their main challenge is to find enough room for their arrangements since there are many exhibits and objects on display. “Carter House is a folk museum,” Deanna points out, “and it is one that men are interested in as well as women.” The collections of tools and of weird and wonderful padlocks support her opinion. So does the Amazon Queen, the sailing dinghy which now dominates the main room, and the portraits of St. David’s characters who were farmers, boatmen and pilots.
Did Bermudians decorate for Christmas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? “Oh yes,” Ronnie says firmly, “but they wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree.” That tradition came in under Queen Victoria whose consort Prince Albert was German. “They would have used whatever natural materials they could find. A branch of citrus with hanging fruit, for example, and they would have put lots of foliage on the stairs and the mantels. They would also have used ribbon, plain and satin.”
Deanna and Ronnie follow that custom by using cedar, palm, and magnolia leaves, boxwood, pittosporum and ferns, and they too use citrus, following the Elizabethan practice of piercing them with cloves to create pomanders. They use berries, too—the pale gold seed of the Canary Island date palm and the red berries of pyracantha or firethorn. Ronnie collects much of her plant material from William Zuill’s garden at Orange Grove in Smith’s Parish. A founding member of the St. David’s Historical Society, Zuill is also a descendent of Carter and Martha. “So every year he gives me his blessing,” Ronnie laughs. But the native purple turkey berries threaded through the mantle arrangements grow in the museum’s garden. Christmas wreaths on doors go back to pagan times and again Ronnie gives them a traditional twist by using local magnolia leaves, mini gourds specially imported from Williamsburg, oranges and half pomegranates.
Carter House is not the only building to be decorated at Christmas time; the thatched replica of an early settler’s dwelling built by Larry Mills just next door also receives attention. A large dining table inside the cedar cabin is set with tableware replicated from items found in Jamestown, as well as a reproduction of a Bellarmine jug found on the Sea Venture. A bowl of fruit brings colour to the table as do the lit candles. And a blazing fire in the open fireplace adds to the festive cheer. Farmer Gabre Swan, famous for growing cassava, brings a branch in, explaining that it’s best to propagate it by slip rather than by seed. The long plant rests against the daub and wattle wall.
But guests do not leave hungry. Fish chowder courtesy of Gary Lamb is served in the dwelling, and mulled wine flows freely thanks to Michel Chameau. Children get to eat gingerbread and cookies, before the one anachronism arrives—Santa with a bag of gifts. When the party ends, visitors leave with a sense of history, of connection to a time when Christmas celebration was simpler but no less convivial.