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Deep roots: Holiday traditions thrive at state parks

The First Missouri State Capitol is one of four state historic sites that put old-time traditions back into the holiday season.

The seat of state government from 1821 to1826, restoration of the row of brick buildings in the 1960s was the catalyst that sparked the creation of the St. Charles historic district.

Today, the district has some 125 one-of-a-kind shops along brick-paved Main Street, offering enough unusual gifts to satisfy everyone on your list.

During the holidays, the district reverts to a charming Missouri River town, with roaming costumed characters, carriage rides, an outdoor ice-skating rink and Santa parades. Visit www.historicstcharles.com for a full list of activities.

The State Capitol will hold free “open doors” on Dec. 15, 19 and 22 with costumed interpreters and hot spiced cider. There will be hourly readings of “The Night Before Christmas” starting at noon on Dec. 19.

“There’s a ton of things to do down here,” said Vikki Love, the site administrator for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks. “It’s just beautiful with all the decorated lights. You can smell Grandma’s Cookies up and down the street.”

Decorations at the other three historic sites are not lavish – no animated Santas, no reindeer dashing across the roof. Visitors are taken back to simpler times when Christmas didn’t evolve around indoor megamalls, big-box discount stores and online shopping.

Felix Valle: The crèche

At the Felix Valle House State Historic Site in the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, the parlor is decorated with a miniature manger and dozens of figures – a crèche surrounded by santons, or “little saints,” which represent the peasants of the French countryside. A very important person was missing.

“The baby Jesus is not in there – he arrives on Christmas Eve; the youngest member of the family puts the baby Jesus in,” said Jim Baker, the site administrator. “And the figures of the three wise men start moving around the room on Christmas to symbolize their journey. They arrive at the crèche on the 12th night, the Epiphany.”

Deutschheim: Goose feather trees

The Pommer-Gentner house, one of two vintage homes on tour at the Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann, is decorated with table-top trees that reflect the traditions of the German immigrants who began arriving in the early 1800s.

There’s a tree decorated with sugar cookie ornaments that were eaten by the children after Christmas, a tree with tiny candles in stamped tin holders, and a tree with deer, roosters, soldiers and snowflakes, all delicately cut out of white paper in an art called scherenschnitte.

“The limbs of this tree are goose quills dyed green and wrapped around a dowel with wire,” said Cynthia Browne, the site administrator. “In the mid 19th century, there was so much deforestation of Germany that they issued a decree that you couldn’t cut down the trees any more. So they made goose feather trees.”

“The Christmas tree tradition came from Germany, they were an ancient symbol of life,” Browne said. “Germany also was the source for glass ornaments, so we have those as well. All the Santa Claus traditions are German, too.”

Hunter-Dawson: Victorian Christmas

The fourth state historic site on our Christmas visit list is an elegant home near  Missouri’s Bootheel, the Hunter-Dawson home in New Madrid. The Hunter and Dawson families lived in the antebellum home from the eve of the Civil War until the 1950s.

During the holidays, the house is decorated with greenery and bows on the fences outside, and with several trees inside.

“We have one small tree that is more traditional Victorian – it’s decorated with popcorn and cranberries,” said Vicki Jackson, interpretive resource specialist. “We light all our oil lamps and all the candles. There are no electric lights, other than those on the trees.”

The mansion has 15 rooms with nine fireplaces and antique furniture purchased by Amanda Watson Hunter, most of it in 1860.

“She bought $1,700 worth of furniture for the home,” Jackson said. “That was quite a bit of money for the time.”