Imagine not being able to celebrate Christmas at all, while hearing celebratory chatter and smelling the rich aroma of holiday dinner just down the hall. This stood out as the reality for prisoners in the 19th century, according to information from the 1859 Jail & Museum’s Spirit of Christmas tour.

While a darkened, allegedly haunted jail might not seem like a natural setting for cozy Christmas traditions, the Independence landmark subverts this expectation with its annual exhibit, which showcases authentic Victorian decor and Christmas-related historical facts.

Wandering through the different rooms and up the creaky stairs will transport visitors back to the 19th century, when Christmas trees first became popular in America. German immigrants first introduced the trees to the country, but, according to Jackson County Historical Society research, they became commonplace when Americans read about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert owning a Christmas tree. Families draped the Christmas trees of the period in mostly edible decorations, including popcorn strands, sugar plums and candy canes. In addition, they fashioned paper ornaments to hold food to the trees.

While a large Christmas tree has been a well-known part of the tour since the 1859 Jail began decorating in 1960, the tour has implemented new details this year. According to Jackson County State Historical Society director Caitlin Eckard, staff wanted to emphasize immigrant contributions to the holiday.

“We wanted to focus on the traditions brought to America and the stories behind them,” Eckard said. “We wanted to explore and share why Christmas became the family holiday that it is today.”

Stockings count as another German tradition. In both Germany and the Netherlands, people said Saint Nicholas would leave candy and presents in stockings on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, children received one special gift, usually socks, clothing, a handmade toy or a book.

Similarly, the now common implementation of candles and holly stemmed from the Irish. A single candle in a household’s window served as a symbol, conveying room for Mary and Joseph to stay. Meanwhile, holly grew abundantly around Ireland in the wintertime. The Irish can also take credit for the tradition of laying out milk and cookies for Santa Claus – this bears similarity to the Irish “laden table,” where people left milk and sweet bread out for travelers.

Portrayals of Santa himself were markedly different than today, with Santa often appearing as skinny and young. German-American artist Thomas Nast first drew the iconic plump and bearded Santa, and his red coat would not become a staple until the 1940s.

Eckard says the 1859 Jail’s decoration usually bring in near 500 people, carrying on a long tradition.

“Since they opened, the jail, the Vaile Mansion and the Bingham-Waggoner Estate used to do events where you would tour all three,” Eckard said. “It was a way for people to see the decorations before the general public. This year, we definitely made changes and encourage people to come see what’s new.”

In January, the 1859 Jail and Museum will close for structural repairs. The Historical Society this week received news that it earned a $750,000 grant to contribute to these improvements.

IF YOU GO

The 1859 Jail and Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 30. Closed Christmas Day. It’s at 217 N. Main St. on the north edge of the Independence Square