Throughout different eras and places in history, Christmastime feels special. Maybe it’s the extra effort from giving gifts, baking and attending special events. It could be the smell of evergreens or twinkling light strands.
Whatever makes you feel festive, visiting an impressive historic mansion just might help the Christmas spirit visit you. Historic houses are especially enticing and meaningful when they incorporate accoutrements from the era when its owners lived there.
Outside of Harrisburg are several historic mansions, all gussied up for the holidays, which may not be on your radar but are definitely worth a visit this month.
Eisenhower Farm Christmas
A farm near Gettysburg served as President Dwight and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s weekend retreat and eventual retirement home. Mamie, dubbed “Mrs. Christmas” by Southern Living magazine, made her surroundings come alive at Christmastime.
Curators have taken special care to re-create Mamie’s special farmhouse touches and Christmas style. A life-sized Santa greets visitors on the porch. Traditional mistletoe, wreaths and poinsettias accent the house in green, and the family tree is illuminated and covered with candy canes. In the kitchen are sugar cookies and plum pudding, just like Mamie made for her grandchildren. The dining room table is even set for Christmas dinner. One glance at all the presents under the tree, and you’ll feel like part of the Eisenhower family. Go ahead and hum along to their Christmas records playing in the background.
Visitors can view the Eisenhowers’ custom-made White House Christmas cards, Christmas gift prints of Ike’s paintings and a handmade, 1950s-era Christmas diorama.
If you’re also visiting the battlefield, a tour shuttle bus leaves daily from the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.
Eisenhower National Historic Site is located at 243 Eisenhower Farm Rd., Gettysburg. For more information, call 717-334-1124 or visit www.nps.gov/eise/index.htm.
For more presidential history, visit “Yuletide” at President James Buchanan’s grand Wheatland mansion in Lancaster. Yuletide is a holiday-themed, performance-based program that brings to life pre-Civil War American history.
The house features decorations from the Victorian era all the way through the 1920s, when the Wilson family lived there. Visitors don’t just tour Wheatland. They become part of the performance, playing parlor games and caroling. Yuletide performances go on through Dec. 29.
While visiting Wheatland, be sure to visit all the non-Christmas sites, including at neighboring LancasterHistory.org: the gardens, the research library and archives, the exhibition galleries, the arboretum and the museum store.
As a bonus, LancasterHistory.org is planning to hold a special “Tours & Tinsel” program on Dec. 11 and 18 from 6 to 8 p.m., complete with live music and drinks.
Wheatland is located at 1120 Marietta Ave., Lancaster, and neighboring LancasterHistory.org is located at 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster. For more information, call 717-392-4633 or visit www.lancasterhistory.org.
Although not a presidential home, local politician James McCormick Cameron’s 32-room stone mansion, built circa 1908, served as his summer retreat from his city home in Harrisburg. The Masland family (of carpet fame) purchased the house after Cameron’s death in 1949. The commonwealth acquired the property through the Nature Conservancy in 1973.
On Dec. 2 and Dec. 9, the Cameron-Masland Mansion opens from noon to 4 p.m. for its self-guided holiday open house. Although the first floor of the mansion is open Sunday afternoons Memorial Day through November, it has special hours and events for one week in December.
Enjoy seasonal Celtic harp music on Dec. 2 and cello music on Dec. 9, perfectly bookending the event. Visitors may also sample hot-spiced cider and cranberry orange cookies in the afternoons. A holiday coffee house will keep the mansion open on Dec. 8 starting at 6 p.m. for music and refreshments.
The Italian villa-style house is situated on more than 2,500 acres of forest on South Mountain, with more than 20 miles of hiking trails and an impressive view of the Cumberland Valley.
The Cameron/Masland Mansion is located at Kings Gap State Park, 500 Kings Gap Rd., Carlisle. For more information, call 717-486-5031 or visit www.friendsofkingsgap.org/home/kings_gap_mansion.
Christmas Near You
If you prefer your mansion to be closer to home, Fort Hunter Mansion and the Harris-Cameron Mansion in Harrisburg are always festooned for the holidays, with many activities planned.
Fort Hunter Mansion
- Christmas at Fort Hunter: Tour the mansion, decorated for the Christmas season.
- Clear Toy Candy Demonstration: See how barley sugar candy was made as early as the 1850s.
- Craft Reunion Show and Sale: Boutique-style open house full of traditional holiday and central Pennsylvania crafts.
- Festival of Trees: Local garden clubs decorate trees, filling the first floor of the mansion.
- Fort Couture Christmas Tree Dresses: Decorate dress forms to look like trees or watch others create.
- Greens Sale: Purchase handmade evergreen arrangements such as boxwood trees, topiaries, centerpieces and swags.
- Kids-Only Shop: All items priced $10 and under, and the Friends of Fort Hunter wrap and label all gifts for the children.
- Santa’s Reindeer and Mrs. Santa: A photo op with Santa’s wife and staff.
- Susquehanna Folk Music Jam Session: Bring your own acoustic instrument and snacks to share for a jam session.
- Toy Train Exhibit: Displayed by the Keystone Model Railroad.
- Victorian Tea: Old-timey seasonal tea.
Fort Hunter Mansion is located at 5300 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.forthunter.org.
John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion
- Deck the Halls: On Dec. 6, the mansion hosts its annual gala and fundraiser to include live music, food stations, a silent auction and an open beer and wine bar.
- Christmas at the Mansion: On Dec. 9, 1 to 6 p.m., the mansion will feature natural decorations, a visit from Santa, displays of vintage toys and refreshments. It also will serve as a stop for Historic Harrisburg’s Candlelight House Tour.
The John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion is located at 219 S. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.dauphincountyhistory.org/museum.