Less Is More

Thirty-nine years ago someone came up with the idea to decorate one of the historic homes that had been transplanted to Sam Houston Park for preservation, and the Heritage Society's annual Candlelight Tour was born. Since then, the event has grown to attract some 15,000 visitors a year, who come to see all eight houses done up in the holiday decorations appropriate to their era. The only problem is, most of these buildings predate the tradition of covering every inch of furniture with tinsel and kitschy holiday cheer.

Hard to believe, but there was a time when all Houstonians did was throw up a tree -- a small tree, perhaps even a sapling -- or hang some holly. Meals consisted of only a couple of courses, and the most children could expect was one present and some cookies.

Curator Wallace Saage does his best to work within the framework of history. The Nichols-Rice-Cherry house, for instance, was owned by the wealthy founder of Rice University, William Marsh Rice, whose importing business gave him access to more elaborate food and holiday items than the average joe. His table is covered with beautiful antique dishes and the finest plastic food items. More elaborate holiday preparations can be justified in the Staiti House as well since, unlike the other Heritage homes, it was built just after the turn of the century.

Even though the period doesn't provide a lot of excuses for Santa Claus lawn ornaments, there will still be plenty to see. As can be expected at any re-creation of yesteryear, the First Texas Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Texas Army will set up camp to re-enact the Civil War days and life in the times of the Republic of Texas. There will be music, of course, provided by a number of choirs, carolers and a dulcimer society. Weavers, basket makers, calligraphers and other propagators of dead trades will do their part by demonstrating their antiquated skills.

But the most beautiful scenes will play out before the mind's eye. Each building on the tour has its own story specific to the era and its then-occupants. Visitors at the Staiti House are asked to imagine that the brothers Charles, Henry and Grover have just drilled an oil well at Damon Mound. As they sit in the pews of St. John Church and listen to the voices of the Houston Boys Choir, guests are encouraged to imagine the congregation celebrating the purchase of its new organ (the society was able to acquire the church's original instrument). In the home of Jack Yates, a former slave and the reverend minister of the Antioch Baptist Church, we can see the ornaments the children have been making, and the oranges and cloves that will be used for stocking stuffers. The tour isn't so much about Christmas as it is a window into the daily life of our fair city, back when its life was just beginning.