by Tess Mize
The holiday season is a time for nostalgia. It’s the time of the year when people wax poetic about their childhood traditions, family gatherings and days gone by. A particularly popular source of nostalgia for this time of year is the Victorian Era, perhaps because our Victorian forebears are the ones who started many of the now traditional celebrations associated with Christmas.
The Christmas tree, long a popular tradition in Germany, spread rapidly in the English-speaking world, once Queen Victoria’s family was drawn celebrating with one in England. The tradition of the Christmas card also stems back to Queen Victoria and her contemporaries in England, and America extended the seasonal festivities to include more prominent displays of decorating the home, giving gifts and singing carols. It’s natural, then, that our Christmas time nostalgia has a home in Victorian society–and that, in the hustle and bustle of the season, we long to return to the simpler beginnings of our many traditions.
There is no better place I can think of in the Central Valley to celebrate the roots of some of our most beloved Christmas traditions than at Kearney Mansion in Fresno. Having fully bedecked the house and grounds for the holidays, the Fresno Historical Society invites you to experience a true Victorian Christmas with guided tours of the mansion. A longtime Fresno holiday attraction, the tours are back for their second season after a decade-long hiatus. The mansion itself is a well-known Fresno landmark, but so often attractions like Kearney Mansion become tourist stops, largely overlooked by locals, apart from memories of a school field trip. The history of the building and property is fascinating, and when added to the holiday decorations, should be well worth a trip.
The mansion was the pet project of a major contributor to the valley’s agricultural development in the late 1800s. Martin Theodore Kearney’s innovations in agriculture made it more accessible for middle class purchasers to start farming, which contributed to the growth of the agricultural industry in the Central Valley. He started work on his “dream home” in 1892. The current mansion was originally intended to be only part of a vast estate to be called “Chateau Fresno.” It was to be built on the 225-acre property now known as Kearney Park. Unfortunately, Kearney’s Chateau Fresno was never completed. Only the mansion (originally intended to be the caretaker’s lodge) and the servant’s quarters were finished.
While the current Kearney Mansion may not have lived up to its creator’s intended plans, it is still a stunning work of Victorian architecture, and its elaborate furnishings strike an impressive impact to the modern visitor. Fifty percent of the beautiful wallpapers, light fixtures and other furnishings are original to the house. The Christmas decorations inside all have the authenticity of the Victorian era, with much of the greenery and other natural elements (such as pine cones and walnuts) having been collected from the grounds of Kearney Park! In 2012, the tours and events hosted at Kearney Mansion for the Christmas season drew around two thousand visitors. This year, there are several weekend dates in December to tour the mansion and grounds, as well as opportunities for school trips on weekdays. December 15 will be Family Day and Saint Nicholas is scheduled to make a special appearance for the children! So make time this holiday season to tour Kearney Mansion and the surrounding park, and transport yourself back in time for a Christmas experience to remember.
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children and students (3 and under free). $5 per car entrance fee to the park.
Full schedule of events and tour times can be found at valleyhistory.org. For more information or for tour reservations, call 559-441-0862.