Eggnog and freshly baked gingerbread, caroling in your neighborhood on a chilly evening, opening a present on Christmas Eve and finding a new set of pajamas (again!) or decorating your tree with paper ornaments made by your children. Everyone has a favorite holiday memory.
I’d like to share one of mine, which started many years ago after my first Christmas visit to the historic homes of Independence. Every December, I take a group of girlfriends with me to tour one (or more) of three jewels of Independence history during the annual Spirit of Christmas Past Heritage Homes Tour. We top off the day with lunch at one of the great family owned restaurants on Independence Square. What, you might wonder, makes this annual pilgrimage so special? Let me brag a little.
I recommend starting at the oldest home on tour, the Marshal’s Home in the 1859 Jail, on the Square at 217 N. Main. Inside the red brick, two-story federal-style building, the simple frontier-era decorations include fresh greenery, ribbons, candles, grapevine, cloth and tin ornaments and materials from that time.
The entry courtyard, upstairs living quarters for the marshal’s family, as well as the downstairs formal parlor and marshal’s office, are all decorated each year, but don’t expect to see any wreaths or trees in the jail. That would not be historically accurate. Your tour ticket includes access to the cells and adjoining museum, which includes displays on the jail’s most famous prisoner, Frank James, as well as a rather glitzy bar created for Harry Truman by some of his poker-playing friends.
From the Square, head south five minutes to the lovely Bingham-Waggoner Estate, 313 W. Pacific, a 30-room mansion majestically situated on a stately lot filled with ancient black walnut trees. Decorations vary each year to reflect a new theme. This year, it is “Silver Bells’ the Music of the Season.”
We are always anxious to see what the volunteer decorators have done to make this always-stately family home sparkle and shine. The mahogany-paneled dining room with the green-tiled fireplace and brilliantly colored Tiffany-style hanging chandelier, topped with a golden crown, is always breathtaking.
The pink ladies parlor is typically full of feminine flourishes, while the gentleman’s parlor might feature something such as a cigar band, adorned pheasant-feather topped tree. When you step inside the grand entry, you might hear Christmas carols being played on the original Steinway piano or savor the fragrance of fresh-baked cookies, always on hand in the seasonal tea room on the upper level.
Before heading to the third home on the tour, if you visit on a weekend, take a brief detour across the street to the Chicago & Alton 1879 Depot at 318 W. Pacific. Offering “St. Nicholas” Christmas Tours, which begin the Friday after Thanksgiving and continue on weekends through December 22, the depot is a bonus. Though not part of the three-site Spirit of Christmas Past tours, the Depot is full of fascinating train and railroad artifacts, as well as a second floor where the station master and his family lived. The entire building, including the luggage and waiting rooms, are all decorated for Christmas. I love seeing multiple model trains set up and running. Admission is free, though donations are welcome.
If you need a break to refuel, stop for lunch at one of the restaurants on the Square. Kick back with a plate-size pork tenderloin and bread pudding at the Courthouse Exchange restaurant. Feast on tender Wiener Schnitzel and apple strudel washed down with an imported German beer at the Rheinland Restaurant. Relax for a leisurely Mediterranean lunch at Café Verona (think hummus trio appetizer, sausage rosa and buttery risotto with roasted red peppers). Indulge in a memorable culinary experience at Ophelia’s, where choices include spa salmon, twisted chicken and cranberry quesadillas or to-die for desserts such as for crème brule.
If you’re in a hurry, pop into Square Pizza (where the pizza slices are – what else? square) or Up Dog for a gourmet hot dog like you’ve never tasted. Stroll through fine antique, specialty and gift shops on the Square, and you might snag a great find such as the silver/black art deco pin I once discovered at Serendipity.
Your final stop on the tour is Vaile Mansion. It’s always decked to the hilt in ribbons, lace, angels, toys, and thousands of tiny white lights, which are draped around up to 50 trees of all sizes, and unexpected flourishes such as seashells or feathers.
This show-stopper of a house was designed after a French second-empire estate; it’s the most elegant home in the city. It’s no wonder to see why USA Today called the home a “Christmas castle.” Hand-painted ceilings and woodwork, 14-foot-high ceilings, nine hand-carved marble fireplaces and brilliant crystal chandeliers ratchet up the “wow” factor of the mansion. This year’s theme is “A Fashionable Victorian Christmas.”
You might bump into volunteers in vintage clothing, from the “maid” or “butler” to “Colonel and Mrs. Vaile.” Good news for your wallet – the three-home combo discount ticket for the Marshal’s Home, Bingham-Waggoner Estate and Vaile Mansion is only $15. Tour each home any day from November 23–December 30 (closed December 23-25).
Hungry for more? There’s a whole sleigh full of other events in Independence from which to choose, from pioneer-themed Christmas events at the National Frontier Trails Museum to concerts featuring rap and Christian music at the Independence Events Center, to the classic Handel’s Messiah. You also will find puppet shows, holiday carnivals, skating with Santa and much more.
For a complete list of holiday happenings, go to VisitIndependence.com or call 800-748-7323 for a holiday brochure.
Written by Janeen Aggen, media relations representative for Independence Tourism; photos courtesy Independence Tourism.