Once again the holiday season is upon us. In downtown Chicago, trees are out, lights are up, and windows have been decorated. But this tradition of showing off our holiday spirit with grand displays of lights, ornaments, and Christmas trees is relatively new. For hundreds of years, the earliest holiday traditions revolved around food.
This idea is brought to life with the annual decorating of the beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, rooms from our collection are adorned with period-appropriate holiday décor, and since many rooms are inspired by the 16th to 19th centuries, this often means creative displays of food.
Take for instance the English Great Hall of the Late Tudor Period (circa 1550-1603). One of our earliest period miniature rooms, holiday celebrations from this era focused on sweets as a means to display wealth and stature. During a time when sugar was scarce and, therefore, expensive, the serving of cakes, cookies, and sugary delights during the holidays was truly impressive! In many stately homes, sugar was so coveted that it was kept under lock and key and only the lord of the manor or his confectioner had access.
Pictured above on the dining table is the installation of an assortment of decadent sweets served during this period. You’ll see white cakes topped with cherries called Spanish Paps, and marchpane, a cake made of Italian marzipan (a mixture of sugar and almond meal) that was decorated with sugared fruits. Alongside these tasty treats are numerous plates of gooey gingerbreads and sugared fruits.
In a tradition that lives to this day, there was also plenty of drinking going on during the holidays. In the wealthiest homes, you would find innovative and grandiose sugar sculptures (called subtleties) that would have been used to serve claret (wine). Pictured below is a miniature replica of this kind of serving device. Claret would have been poured into the top and flowed down to the mouths of the golden lions positioned around the bottom where guests held their goblets to catch the claret.
Each year our Thorne Rooms caretaker, Lindsay Mican Morgan, is charged with adding a new room to the holiday exhibition. This year’s addition is the Virginia Dining Room (circa 1758). Even though two hundred years separate this dining room from the English Great Hall, serving sugary sweets remained a central focus. The new decorations will include goblets full of colorful jellies, a Twelfth Night cake, and even this fabulous marzipan hedgehog!
This holiday season, we invite you to come down to the Art Institute and see all thirteen of our miniature rooms decked out for the holidays. It’s a sure fire way to satisfy your sweet tooth and get you in the holiday spirit!