This holiday season, an 1850s Irish Christmas celebration is underway at Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House Museum on Peoria’s East Bluff. Meanwhile, on Peoria’s West Bluff, the works of Charles Dickens will guide an 1840s version of an English Christmas at the Historical Society’s Pettengill-Morron House.

A mystery confronts visitors to Flanagan House, overlaying the Gaelic tradition in evidence. One of the fine presents, a gift for Judge Flanagan’s beloved invalid sister, Louisa, is missing. Visitors will hear clues as they proceed from room to room. Had the gift been misplaced, accidentally damaged, or-heaven forbid-stolen? Could it have been one of the rascally Wren Boys? Or maybe one of the servants?

The gift had been under the tree. In earlier days, both the English and the Irish had arrayed gifts on a chair. But when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840, he brought to England from his native Germany the custom of a decorated tree, a regal fashion that quickly became popular.

Charles Dickens also enjoyed decorating a tree. In 1842, already an established writer and fascinated with America, he, his wife, and her maid traveled from England to see America firsthand. He came to Illinois specifically to see the prairies and stayed in downstate Lebanon. In his American travels, he also sought out and visited prisons; hospitals for the insane; reform schools; schools for the blind, deaf, and dumb; and factories. Slavery in the South appalled him. The following year he wrote A Christmas Carol. Before the decade was out, he’d written four additional Christmas books, including The Cricket on the Hearth.

"A lot of his stories seem to include family members, relatives, and friends," said Pettengill-Morron House Chairman DeAnn Ruggles. "For example, Dickens’ oldest sister had a crippled son, most likely the model for Tiny Tim and for Paul Dombey of Dombey and Son." 

Dickens and his wife had 10 children. Ironically, his son, Francis Jeffrey (Frank) Dickens, after serving in India with the Bengal Mounted Police, squandering his inheritance. After working in Canada, he ended up in Moline, where he died in 1886 and where he’s buried.

Both houses will feature costumed historical characters. Dr. Peter Couri, past president of the Historical Society, scripted the mystery and has worked with Gloria LaHood, site manager at Flanagan House Museum, for its execution. Pettengill-Morron House volunteers have researched the proper English perspective in Dickens’ day.

Carolers will welcome Pettengill-Morron House visitors, including many ladies who’ve been involved as hostesses over the past 30 years. Luminaries will light the way at both houses. Guests will enter Flanagan House through the formal entrance on the river side of the property, as they would have in the days of Judge Flanagan, and view the twinkling lights of downtown.

Inside, the houses will feature decorations coordinated by Tom Carrigan of Leo’s Flowers and Gifts, David Rogers, the Peoria Herb Guild (at Flanagan), and Peoria Garden Club (at Pettengill-Morron). 

Both houses will feature live music, including harp and piano at Flanagan House. In the parlor at the Pettengill-Morron House, reenactors will play games of the period, while ladies will be dressed in their holiday finery.

Plum pudding provides the festive dessert on both tables, though the English opt for "smoking bishop," a spiced wine beverage with oranges that they heat until it steams, while the Irish turn to a decanter of fine whiskey. The young Irish lads with their captured wren (hence "Wren Boys") will solicit holiday treats, as is their custom. Guests will be offered a holiday cooky at both homes.

"These are wonderful opportunities for several generations to share an experience together, or for Scout troops and youth groups," said Kathy Belsley, PHS executive director.

Tours take place the first two weekends of December. On Fridays and Saturdays (December 5, 6, 12, and 13), the houses are open from 6 to 8 p.m. On Sundays (December 7 and 14), Flanagan House is open from 1 to 4 p.m., while Pettengill-Morron House is open from 2 to 4 p.m. Flanagan House Museum is located at 942 NE Glen Oak Avenue; the Pettengill-Morron House is located at 1212 W. Moss Avenue. Cost is $5 for adults and $2 for students. For more information, call 674-1921. AA!