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Gardening & More: See floral holiday decorations on display at Old Fort Niagara

OH CHRISTMAS TREE — Holiday decorations created by the Youngstown Garden Club add a festive feeling to the bakery in Old Fort Niagara. The decorations are natural and rustic, to fit in with the architecture of the building.
NIAGARA — Act like a tourist in your own backyard and take a trip to Old Fort Niagara, to view the holiday decorations created by the Youngstown Garden Club.

The decorations are woodsy and rustic, to fit in with the architecture of the 1726 building, which is known as the French Castle. The ornaments used in the officers’ areas are fancier, embellished with satin ribbons and silver cording.

You can see the decorations through Monday, Dec. 31. Hours are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., daily. The fort is closed on Christmas and New Year’s days. Discounts are available. Old Fort Niagara is located at 4 Scott Ave. in Youngstown.

You may also view the decorations by candlelight, during the fort’s annual Castle by Candlelight Program, on Saturday, Dec. 22 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. Historic characters will weave tales about Christmases in the 18th and 19th centuries. Demonstrations of 18th and early 19th century trades and period music will be performed. In the Castle’s Boulangerie (the bakery), cooks will demonstrate the preparation of a traditional holiday feast, including wild game.

A grand feu de joie (or firing of joy), a traditional military ceremony, that involves running fire by muskets and artillery, to mark a special occasion or victory, will take place at 8:30 p.m.

Tickets to the Castle by Candlelight will be available at the door. Guests may arrive at the Fort Niagara Visitor Center between 7 and 8:30 p.m. and are asked to dress for the weather, wear walking footwear and bring a flashlight. There will be additional admissions stations at the event, this year.

To prepare for decorating the fort, the Youngstown Garden Club held several workshops, where members made ornaments and wreaths, according to Donna Gray, a member of the club and chairman of decorating for Old Fort Niagara. The co-chair is Marge McCollum.

Many of the fort’s ornaments are disks that were cut from the branch of a cherry tree. The bark was left onto them. The club members stenciled a simple design onto each and a hole was drilled into the disks. Ribbons were used to attach the ornaments to Christmas trees, swags, topiaries and other decorations.

Small flowers were used in the arrangements. The arrangements used grape hyacinths, a lovely spring flower that can really spread. The grape hyacinths were dried and spray painted. What a great use for a prolific flower!

A trio of topiaries also decorate the fort’s kitchen. The committee started with wooden, cone-shaped forms that were then wrapped in grapevines. The cherry wood ornaments also decorated the topiaries.

The club members used a fleur-de-lis motif to represent France on the fancier decorations. That was one of the three nations that held the fort. The other two were England and the United States and all three countries competed for the support of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The fleur-de-lis ornaments were made from matboard and hung with royal blue ribbon. Pine cones with silver ribbon and cording coordinate with the fleur-de-lis ornaments on a Christmas tree, on the second floor.

The Youngstown Garden Club has been recognized by the National Garden Clubs Inc. as the first place winner in “decoration of historic building,” for the club’s holiday decorating of the French Castle.

The club’s stated goal for the decorations was to make the fort feel festive, for visitors at Christmastime and not necessarily to be historically accurate, according to Bob Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, in which the fort played an important role. Christmas 1812, however, was not such a happy time, at the fort.

The war began in June and the fort was bombarded in October and again in November.

“There were dozens of cannonball holes in the building,” Emerson said. “There was no roof; rain would be coming right through. It would have been a bleak place.”

Even during years the fort did not see active combat, Christmas celebrations were very different from those we know, today. Christians in the 1700s and early 1800s might have had religious celebrations and a big dinner on Christmas, but Fort Niagara was so remote that it was likely that the soldiers had neither of those things.

According to Emerson, “you’d be hard pressed to find any mention of Christmas” in fort records. Instead, people of that time were more likely to hold celebrations 12 days after Christmas, on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Epiphany.

In a nod to that tradition, a Twelfth Night Ball will be held from 7 – 11:15 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5 in the Fort Niagara Officers’ Club, which is heated, unlike the French Castle.

The event will include Georgian-era country dancing (with instruction), fine beverages and desserts. Advance sale reservations are required, as the event usually sells out. To purchase tickets, call the fort office at 745-7611.

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email Connie@BuffaloNiagaraGardening.com.
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