The Pagan Origins of Christmas (part two)

And now, part two of Sara Breshears’ “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.”

By Sara Breshears

The Party Gets Rolling 

As previously mentioned, in early Christianity, Christmas was not widely celebrated and was overshadowed by Epiphany or the visit of the Magi, which was celebrated on January 6th.  By the High Middle Ages, with Christmas becoming more prominent thanks in part to the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas in 800 CE and William the Conqueror in 1066, Christmas was the first in a long list of religious holidays that were celebrated.  

Like Saturnalia, Christmas in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was a party, filled with drinking, overeating, and merrymaking!  

In England, Christmas kicked off a long continuous party that culminated in Twelfth Night celebrations, on January 5th.  Leading up to the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations was Advent, which was twenty-four days of fasting and prayer. This was done by most families to save money and food for to be used the celebrations.  

“Advent calendar from Im Lande des Christkinds (In the Land of the Christ Child). Richard Ernst Kepler (1851-1927)


The Catholic Church at the time had strict rules about celebrating during the Twelve Days of Christmas and decreed that only the minimal amount of work could take place during the celebrations. So, Advent was used to prep the farm and household for the festivities and so no rules would be broken. 

During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was chosen to oversee the celebrations, particularly the Feast of Fools. In England, sometimes the Lord or King of Misrule was chosen by finding a pea in the Twelfth Night cake, not unlike King Cake today. 

In France and in Switzerland a boy would be chosen to be ‘Bishop for a Day,’ much like the Saturnalias Princeps, and would be dressed in bishop’s clothes and could give light-hearted orders though out the day. 

Gifts were usually given on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day 1532, Henry VIII of England accepted a set of Pyrean Boar Spears from Anne Boleyn, while he gave her hangings of cloth of gold, silver, and crimson satin. Reportedly, he rejected the gold cup his then-wife Catherine of Aragon had sent him as a gift. How rude! 

Getting a “head” of dinner. (From Pinterest)

The traditional meal during Christmas was the Yule Boar or pig for most people, since they were safer to acquire than a boar, which were quite large and could easily kill a man. Turkey was not introduced from the New World until 1532 and Henry VIII again is the first known English king to eat the bird at Christmas, since at the time, they would have been a new and rare delicacy.  

Chroniclers of the courts of Europe record magnificent feasts being held, games being played, and drunken debauchery! While most peasants couldn’t afford to spend the whole day partying, they too had their fun! 

Homes would be decorated with holly and ivy and large Yule logs, big enough to burn over the course of twelve days were selected and dragged home covered in ribbons to be put on the hearth. Christmas crowns were wooden structures built, covered in holly, ivy, and of course mistletoe, and hung in homes to add a bit of decoration.  

In Germany, in the 16th century these were called ‘kissing bough.’ Made out of evergreens like holly and bay leaves and a touch of mistletoe (of course), these were suspended from a ceiling and required any unaware couple to share a kiss before being freed.  

The Party Ends…Temporarily 

As you can see, up till the 17th century, the whole Christmas season was a never-ending party, with pageants, masques and diners, gambling and sporting, and gift-giving!  

However, in 1647, Puritans banned Christmas in England, condemning it as ‘trappings of popery’ and a Catholic invention. Basically, they didn’t like people having too much fun! Once the Parliamentary forces executed King Charles I in 1649 there wasn’t really anyone to argue with them. 

Three years earlier in 1640, the Parliament of Scotland abolished the observance of Christmas and it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was once again a Scottish holiday!  

The Vindication of Christmas (1652) . From

Pro-Christmas riots occurred in several cities and with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 the ban was lifted, but there were many among the clergy who did not approve of any celebration of the holiday and so resumption of the celebrations were not widely common. 

Early pilgrims in Colonial America (who left England not because of religious persecution but because they believed the Anglican church was not strict enough) continued this intense dislike of Christmas and showed it, by working on Christmas day!  

After the American Revolution, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the United States because it was seen as being ‘too British’.  

It wasn’t until the Victorians and the publishing of Charles Dickens novel,  A Christmas Carol, that Christmas was again widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and the United States. 

This sparked the revival of many of the old traditions along with the emergence of some new ones such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees, though the festivities were markedly, more ‘family friendly’ than in centuries previous!  Caroling, Christmas trees, Yule logs, evergreens, gifts, and games all made a comeback and then some! 


The history of Christmas, and the festivals and celebrations that influence our modern Christmas, is fascinating and I only mentioned three of many different holidays that were celebrated throughout Europe and the ancient world! 

That all these different pagan traditions were shared and changed and shaped into something new, is amazing and I am glad we still have them.  

Io Saturnalia! 


The Pagan Origins of Christmas (part one)

Just in time for Christmas, Villa Finale Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears writes about Christmas’ pagan origins in her latest blog post. Sit back and enjoy!

By Sara Breshears

Did you know that up until the 16th century Christmas was less about celebrating the birth of Christ, but more about having a wild and crazy party? The story of Christmas, unsurprisingly, has a long and very colorful history. Many of the staples of the holiday now have less than Christian origins and for centuries early Christians didn’t even celebrate the birth of Christ! 

Many of us can probably think of a few holidays that Christmas was based around, but what were they and who or what did they celebrate? While I could very easily talk about the sixteen or so holidays that were celebrated in Europe around the winter solstice, here we will just cover the big three, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yuletide! 

The Romans Loved to Cut Loose! 

Humans have been celebrating on and around the Winter Solstice for millennia. By the time of the Roman Republic this festival was called Saturnalia. Saturnalia is probably the ancient holiday most of us have heard associated with Christmas and is one of the oldest. 

Saturnalia was a major religious holiday celebrating the Roman god, Saturn or Saturnus in Latin, who was described as a god of agriculture, wealth, plenty, and liberation. After the Romans conquered Greece, he was merged with the Greek god Cronus, and took on the aspect of being the god of time. 

The ancient Roman writer Livy claimed that Saturnalia originated in the 5th century BCE, but there is some evidence that it began even earlier than that!   

Originally celebrated only on December 17th, it was later expanded to three days, and eventually became a seven day celebration, lasting until December 23rd. The Emperor Augustus, who was a bit of a stickler, reduced Saturnalia back to a more modest three-day holiday, but his efforts were in vain as the Emperor Caligula increased the length back to five. It seems most people celebrated the whole seven days anyway! 

Temple of Saturn (from

Festivities began in the Temple of Saturn that stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The statue of Saturn in the temple, we are told from ancient sources, would normally have wool bound around its feet. This would be removed from the statue as an act of liberation, followed by the sacrificing of animals and then a huge public feast. If you saw a friend at the feast a common salutation would be “Io Saturnalia!”  

 In private, families would give gifts, such as jellied figs, candles, and clay or wax figures called sigillaria. A saturnalicius princeps (ruler of Saturnalia) would be selected from the lowest members of a household (which included the slaves). The princeps act as a master of ceremony and allowed to carry out light-hearted mischief. They would give orders like ‘Toss them in the fountain!” Or “Sing the bawdiest song you know!” One ancient author, Catullus, called Saturnalia the “the jolliest of times.” 

Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, Roman society was quite strict about decorum and social conventions. Saturnalia allowed for a relaxing of those social conventions, and citizens could wear more informal, almost garish clothes, hats that normally only freed men (former slaves) would wear, get drunk in public and gamble! Reportedly the writer Pliny built a “soundproof room” so that he could work during celebrations! The party pooper. 

No one was allowed to work during Saturnalia, not even the slaves, and one of the most interesting aspects of this holiday was the role-reversal. Slaves were allowed to celebrate along with their masters. Sometimes dining with them or even being served by their masters!  

Saturnalian license also meant that slaves could disrespect their masters without threat of punishment. Scholars are not sure if these practices were common throughout the history of Saturnalia or if they changed over time, but it is mentioned again and again in the ancient source materials. 

Saturnalia was celebrated throughout Roman history even long after it was removed from the official calendar, so much so that prominent early Christian theologian St. Augustus preached against it in the 5th Century CE! 

Pope Julius I (from Wikicommons)

Pope Julius I in the 4th Century CE decreed that the honoring of Christ’s birth be celebrated on December 25th to coincide with the Saturnalia Festival. Some historians theorize this was done to create an alternative to Saturnalia. So, while celebrating one god a person might swing by another temple to honor another god, just to cover their bases. A bit of sneaky PR right there! 

Interestingly, early Christians did not celebrate birthdays, and indeed did not commemorate the birth of Christ for the first two to three centuries of Christianity, but birthday celebrations were quite common in the Roman culture so this idea of birthdays must have been slowly adopted over time.  

Sol Invictus Gets His Kickus! 

In the latter half of the Roman Empire, the cult Sol Invictus grew in popularity. Originally worshipped by Roman soldiers, he symbolized victory by overcoming the darkness of night. 

Emperor Aurelian, who had an unprecedented string of victories in the eastern half of the empire, came back to Rome and established a new cult of Sol Invictus to be worshipped alongside the more traditional Roman gods, and dedicated a new temple and games (ludis) to the sun god on December 25th. Only the most important gods were celebrated with games, such as with Zeus and the Olympic Games. As far as games went, Sol Invictus’s specialty seemed to be chariot races.  

Chariot races: not for the faint of heart! (from

Chariot races, like the NASCAR or baseball games of today, were major events with everyone turning out and rooting for their favorite team, whether it was the blue, green, red or white team, accompanied with drinking and gambling. Chariot teams would scout the provinces of the empire and the local circuses to find up and coming charioteers to train. 

These were dangerous events for horses and drivers alike with the average life expectancy of charioteers being twenty-five years old. For the ludis solis there were an unprecedented thirty-six chariot races held on December 25th, the usual number being twelve! 

Some scholars think that this connection with the sun, and Christ sometimes being referred to as the ‘Sun of Righteousness,’ as well as early debates about when the conception and birth of Christ actually took place, also lead to the 25th of December being chosen as the day of Jesus’s birth. While the first Christmas celebration is recorded as occurring in Rome in 336 CE, deep divisions in the early church led to the holiday losing prominence. Instead Epiphany celebrations overshadowed Christmas for years to come. It regained some of its importance in 800 CE with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, but we will get to that later. 

Yule Be Sorry If You go Outside 

Another ancient holiday we associate with Christmas is Yule. Yule, sometimes called Yuletide, was celebrated by Germanic peoples in Northern Europe, with Yule being associated with Odin, who had the name Jolfaor in old Norse which translates to “Yule Father,” with Yule possibly being another name for referring to the Norse gods in general. 

Yule might have been originally a holiday to celebrate and venerate the dead and the lengthening of days. There is evidence that Winter Solstice festivals held at Stonehenge held in the Late Bronze Age in England were also for the celebration of the dead. 

Yule has been associated with the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of hunters led by Odin, chasing elusive prey. To see the Wild Hunt was considered a bad omen or precursor to war and famine. It was also believed that if you saw the Wild Hunt you would be taken by it. So overall, Yule was a good reason to celebrate inside. 

Fun aside, variations of the Wild Hunt have made their way into modern storytelling such as in The Witcher video game series or the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Stan Jones! 

During Yule farmers would bring ale and grain to the local temple, along with animals, usually cattle, which were sacrificed. The blood of the animals was considered sacred and would be sprinkled on the walls of the temple and on the statues of the gods and even on those present, while the meat was cooked. A sacred boar or Yule Boar would also sometimes be sacrificed as part of the celebrations, and to swear on its bristles was considered a sacred vow. The meat would be eaten during the festivities and this is where Christmas ham originated from!  

“In Norse mythology, Odin was revered as the All-Father god and the Raven God.” (from

Toasts would be held, with one to Odin, for victory and strength to the king, another to Njord and Freyr for harvests and peace, and then a third toast to departed family and friends.  

Then the celebrations would really begin with singing and dancing and story-telling! Yule-singing, much like the English, wassailing, was a group of people going from house to house singing and offering up a drink from a wassail bowl (think hard apple cider) in exchange for gifts. It also could refer to the tradition of going to the orchards in areas of Europe that produced ciders and offering blessings to the trees in hopes of a good harvest the following year. This practice continued after the Christianization of Europe with priests performing the blessings of the trees. 

“Yule” be pulling this one all the way to the next town! Victorian Yule Log Christmas card, ca. 1870 (from

Yule logs were burned and it was considered good luck to keep a piece to be used for kindling for the next year’s Yule log. Evergreens, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe all of which were thought to protect against evil spirits were hung in door frames.  Even the Romans would hang mistletoe during Saturnalia to protect the household, and associated it with love and fertility.  

Since humans have celebrated the Winter Solstice, which marks the days becoming longer, for thousands of years, scholars believe that ever greens were chosen to decorate the festivities to provide some much needed ‘color relief’ from dark and overcast days of the middle of winter. It was only later on in human history that they acquired the associations with love, fertility, and so on. 

Part two of “The Pagan Origins of Christmas” will be posted soon!

Remembrances: A Very Gen X Christmas

When I first joined the Villa Finale project in 2008, I was very excited about the wide range of interpretive eras we could tackle. From the construction of the house in 1876 (and even before if you figure Villa Finale was built on Alamo farmland) through Walter Mathis’ death in 2005, the epochs and variety of subjects we can cover at the museum for programs, events, and the like are far-reaching, even when talking about Christmas. If you have visited Villa Finale during our Holiday Open House Tours (a first-floor, self-guided experience from now until December 19th) you may have noticed the wide-ranging decorations that include some from the 1970s and 1980s. Since I do spend a lot of time in the house, I began to think: what would it have been like to celebrate Christmas as a kid in Villa Finale?

The Mathis Christmas tree was almost always placed in the Main Hallway, ca. 1970s. Check out all the presents!

Mind you, Walter Mathis did not have any children of his own. More than likely, his great-nieces and great-nephews would have been the first children in the house during his ownership and, just like me, they would be Generation X (born between 1965 – 1980). And just like today, those children would’ve most looked forward to the presents … specifically, toys! So, what sort of toys were popular with Generation X children? Let’s reminisce a little, shall we?

Christmas 1978: opening presents with my brother while dad talked on the phone. This is the year I got my Whoopsie doll! I was so happ-ee!

There are so many toys I can cover but times-sake, I will only highlight a handful. You’re invited to share your favorites in the comments! Let’s begin with this: who remembers the catch phrase “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down”? Weebles, the egg-shaped roly-poly toys manufactured by Hasbro, made their debut in 1971 with a variety of “Weeble people” and accessories including vehicles and playsets. There were over 40 sets of Weebles manufactured between 1972 and 1982 but there was only ONE I just had to have: the Weebles Haunted House (1976)! Santa Claus did come through with this fun little set for us one Christmas. I guess old “scary-looking” houses were always in my future!

One of our most popular holiday programs at Villa Finale is the “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” tour where we not only demonstrate the museum’s music machines, but also talk about toys for Christmas, especially dolls (incidentally, we will be having a live virtual version of this tour on December 17th). On the tour we talk about the Cabbage Patch, the most popular doll of all time (mass-produced by Coleco in 1982), but in this blog post I would like to mention a little-known doll, “Whoopsie.” Manufactured by Ideal between 1978 – 1981, little pigtailed Whoopsie had a vinyl body that, when its tummy was squeezed, would let out a little “whistle” as both of her pigtails would fly up. I mean, what Gen X little girl wouldn’t want one? I can’t tell you how happy my six-year-old little heart was to find Whoopsie under the Christmas tree in 1978. Thanks, Santa!

I also recall toys my brother – who is four years younger than me – wanted for Christmas. Like many little boys back in the early 80s, my brother was obssesed with “Masters of the Universe,” the Mattel line introduced in 1981 that gave us such characters as He-Man, Skeletor, Battle Cat, and all sorts of other strange, super-muscular personalities. I remember my brother had his Masters of the Universe action figures all over the house, including one He-Man that had armor that could be punched and dented at the chest! My mom never understood my brother’s fascination with those monos feos (ugly-looking action figures), but my brother sure loved them! I remember how excited he was to get the Castle Grayskull playset for Christmas one year. Castle Grayskull was where He-Man or Skeletor or someone lived – not sure. Ha!

Castle Grayskull: “Fortress of Mystery and Power for He-Man and His Foes”

We Gen Xers experienced the “golden age” of arcade video games (1978 – 1982). We loved going to the mall, having mom give us a couple of dollars in quarters to spend in the arcade while she went shopping. Gen Xers were among the first to grow up with home video game consoles, as well. I remember being about four and watching all wide-eyed as my uncles (who were in their late teens, early 20s) played Pong. It was magical! There were other home video game consoles that followed including the Atari 2600 in 1977, and the very famous 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System – NES for short – in 1985. My little neighbors had the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s and I would be as anxious as can be waiting for them to invite me over to play! That is until Christmas 1982 when Santa Claus brought us the pièce de résistance of home video game consoles (at the time): the ColecoVision!

The mighty ColecoVision! (I still have mine.)

Then it became OUR turn to host little friends for video game playtime! Released in 1982 by Coleco Industries, Inc., ColecoVision was far superior to the Atari 2600 because the graphics looked like what they were supposed to be! Donkey Kong actually looked like an ape (if you’re familiar with the Atari, you know what I’m talking about). In addition to this home console, Coleco also put out miniature table-top versions of arcade cabinets beginning in 1982. Over a couple of Christmases, Santa brought us table-top cabinets of Zaxxon, Frogger, and Donkey Kong.

From my personal collection (with scissors as a size reference). I still own these gifts from “Santa.”

If you love classic video games, do check out the National Video Game Museum in Frisco, Texas where you can travel back to play in an arcade of the 1980s called “Pixel Dreams.” Click here for more information on the NVM.

While I can’t say for sure any of the toys mentioned in this post were ever under Walter Mathis’ Christmas tree, it certainly is fun to imagine these – or others – were. Can you imagine Villa Finale’s rooms filled with the laughter of children ripping presents open and pieces of wrapping paper scattered everywhere? It would be kinda neat, don’t you think?

[Villa Finale’s virtual “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” will be transmitted via Facebook Live on Thursday, December 17th at 6:00pm CST. Join in to share your own remembrances during the tour via the Facebook Live chat! Click here for the Facebook event page.]

Period Films for the Holidays: Part Two

And now, part two of Doug’s fifteen holiday classics. Let us know which movies make your list in the comments below!

By Doug Daye

8. The Nativity Story (2006) 

The biblical story of the birth of Jesus is emphasized during this time of year. The story starts off in the Roman province Judea during the rule of Herod the Great who orders the death of every first born infant male. Mary and Joseph must escape to Bethlehem for the safety of their unborn child. This film brings this story of Mary and Joseph to life and is led by an all-star cast.  

9. Come to the Stable (1949) 

Two French nuns travel to the town of Bethlehem, Connecticut to build a childrens’ hospital as a tribute to the Americans who died in WWII. In the film, Sister Margaret explains that she made a plea to an American general during WWII to spare the childrens’ hospital in Normandy that she was in charge of, but many American lives were lost in the process. Sister Margaret and Sister Scholastica encounter many obstacles but kindly persuade other eccentric characters to help them in their efforts. 

10. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) 

This biographical drama is based on Charles Dickens and his attempt to write “A Christmas Carol.” As he writes, many of the characters manifest in front of him, including Ebenezer Scrooge! This story examines how Dickens’ tale changed Christmas forever at a time when the holiday season was seen as irrelevant.

11. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Who loves the fun, quirky romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail”? Then you’ll appreciate the original film it was based on. Avoiding regional politics of the time prior to WWII, this is a romantic comedy of two pen pals who happen to work together at a leather goods store in Budapest. They can’t stand each other in real life but end up realizing they have feelings for one another. Sound familiar? 

12. Babes in Toyland (1961) 

If you’re a kid, what’s Christmas without toys? In this story, Mary Contrary and Tom Piper are preparing for their wedding, but the villain Barnaby has Tom kidnapped in an effort to get Mary for himself! They both encounter the Toymaker who is also a pawn in Barnaby’s scheme. It’s a fun, colorful movie which features the famous Toy Soldiers that have since appeared in the Disney Christmas parades around the world! 

13. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) 

On the night of Christmas Eve in Victorian London, Clara comes upon a special string at her godfather Drosselmeyer’s party that is supposed to lead her to a key to unlock her present. Instead she gets sucked into the magical fourth realm and must restore the balance along with the help of her soldier friend Phillip. 

14. Miracle on 34th St. (1947) 

Starting off right in the midst of the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Kris Kringle is made to become a replacement Santa Clause for the parade. However, problems arise when his mental state is questioned after he tries to convince everyone that he is the real Santa Claus. This film became a perpetual holiday favorite which led to the film’s remake in 1994. 

15. Jingle Jangle (2020) 

A brand new Christmas musical film set in an alternate fantasy world! A depressed toymaker who is down on his luck finds new hope by way of his smart, gifted granddaughter. The production was filmed in various historic locations in England that date back to the Tudor period, which gave the film its traditional look. 

Period Films for the Holidays: Part One

If there’s something Doug and I love to do, is talk about movies and movie history. In part one of this blog post, Doug recommends fifteen holiday classics you can enjoy while snuggled up in a warm blanket.

By Doug Daye
One of my favorite things to do at Christmas time is to get comfortable on the couch and watch holiday movies! There are so many holiday classics that people have watched with their families for generations. There are many holiday films that were set in a certain time in history or produced in years past that are still quite popular today. Here is a list of some period holiday movies, old and new, to sit back and watch with a good cup of hot chocolate!! 

1. It’s a Wonderful Life! (1946)

In this iconic holiday story, devastated businessman George Bailey is shown how life would be if he had never existed by an angel trying to earn his wings. The film reflects the post WWII time period in which the film was released. It also has flashbacks of the Great Depression and shows how the characters are affected by the challenges that faced the country at that time.

2. A Christmas Carol (1938, 1951, 1984, 1999, and more!!!) 

Of course, everyone is familiar with the famous Charles Dickens story of the stingy Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits that help change his heart. There are various versions of this film and most are set during the Victorian era. I’m a kid at heart, so I’ll mention “A Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” right here too! 

3. White Christmas (1954) 

Set right after WWII, two former soldiers form a song and dance team with two sister performers and put on a big holiday extravaganza at a lodge, only to realize it is run by their former general. Bing Crosby leads the cast with beautiful musical numbers, including the titular “White Christmas.” 

4. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) 

One of my favorites when I was a kid! Based on Charles M. Schulz’s 1950s comic strip, Charlie Brown tries to find the meaning of Christmas as he finds the holiday becoming commercialized. It premiered on CBS in 1965, became a hit with audiences, and is still aired as a TV special today. 

5. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) 

Starting off in 1903, the story follows one year of the life of the Smith family in St. Louis leading up to the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or the World’s Fair) in 1904. Though the story takes course over different seasons and Christmas is not the main point, it does have beautiful Christmas scenes. Also, Judy Garland performs the famous holiday song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which is why it has earned a spot on this list. 

6. A Christmas Story (1983) 

Set around the 1940s, the movie reveals the adventures of a young boy, Ralphie, and his family during the holiday season. Ralphie is obsessed with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas which, at the time, was based on the popular Red Rider comic strip released in 1938. Though made in more modern times, it maintains the nostalgia of an earlier era. 

7. The Polar Express (2004)

 On the night of Christmas Eve in the late 1950s, a young boy boards a train to the North Pole to meet Santa Clause. Based on the popular children’s book, the story was inspired by writer Chris Van Allenburg’s childhood memories of the Herpolsheimer’s and Wurzburg’s department stores at Christmastime in Grand Rapids, MI. 

We will be posting part two of Doug’s Christmas movie blog next week!

Is Villa Finale … HAUNTED?!

We get a lot of questions from visitors at Villa Finale, and one of the most asked is: is Villa Finale haunted? I can’t say that our entire staff believes in ghosts – I, personally, am on the fence – but all of us have experienced things that can sometimes be a little difficult to explain. Since we have three historic buildings at Villa Finale, I will make sure to cover our experiences at all three.

Villa Finale: The Main House

The Norton-Polk-Mathis House – now known by the name “Villa Finale” – was built in 1876. It had a total of 12 different owners before being owned as a historic house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so its walls have seen a lot of people come and go! Perhaps its old walls have recorded events of times past, but some of us have heard voices coming from the basement, footsteps coming from the main and rear staircase, and footsteps in the Green Rooms. Here is a video taken by John Brannon, a contractor who was working on a rewiring project in the house in 2017. John was making this video to show his son, who shares his love for historic houses, when he caught an extra set of footsteps in the Green Rooms. (This happens around :50 in the video. Sound up!)

I’ve also heard the sounds of what could be labeled as “footsteps” coming from behind me in the Green Bedroom. I was standing at the doorway with my back to the room as I was speaking to my colleague, Buildings & Grounds Manager Orlando Cortinas, who was across the hall in the Blue Room. As I stood there, I clearly heard someone walking behind me toward the door of the room, they suddenly stopped when I looked back. Were these really footsteps or just a figment of our imagination? As far we know, at least one person has died inside Villa Finale – this was back in the 1940s.

Listen to our staff share their “haunting” experiences in this video.

The Carriage House

Villa Finale’s Carriage House, 1968.

The Carriage House dates back to the early 20th century (we don’t have an exact date). Walter Mathis used it as a guest house, and prior to that, other owners used it as a rental property so again, many people have been through this building. Today, we use it as a reception area for visitors and our staff offices. Almost all of us have heard sounds in the Carriage House including voices and footsteps coming from upstairs.

I should note, I have had my desk stationed in almost all the rooms in the Carriage House, including upstairs, but I never had anything considered “strange” happen to me while I was on the second floor. During our first-ever ghost hunt at Villa Finale last year (due to COVID concerns, we will not be hosting one this year), participants recorded some strange sounds in the Carriage House during the event. Were these ghostly? If you’re wondering if anyone has died in the building, we know of at least one young woman who died in that location in 1931.

Want to hear more about the happenings at the Carriage House? Watch this video.

The Meusebach House

Let me begin by saying, I honestly do not know what to say about this house as far as the “activity.” Built in 1886 by Smith and Josie Ellis, the house was sold to Otto and Martha Meusebach in 1889 and this family occupied the home for several years. Several people lived in the house after the Meusebachs, including Walter Nold Mathis’ sister, Agnes.

Otto Meusebach

Today, the house is owned by the National Trust as part of the Villa Finale “complex.” It houses the museum’s research library and it is used for small meetings and programs, as well as storage for a variety of Villa Finale’s supplies. Museum staff is regularly in the building – some staff have even lived there – needless to stay, all of us have spent plenty of time in the house. As I said at the start, I really don’t know what to make about what happens in the building other than, it is something else! Like in the Carriage House, we’ve heard footsteps as well as movement of objects when no other person is in the building. Staff have also reported lights turning on and off.

All of us independently agreed, we are all quite a bit “unsettled” with one particular area of the house: the staircase and adjoining hallway. I’ve had an “experience” there and, after some casual conversation, two of our staff discovered they saw what seemed to be a “man’s figure” at the top of the stairs on separate occasions. Although going to the Meusebach House is needed throughout the week, none of us are “dying” to go over there alone!

Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears at the foot of the “infamous” Meusebach stairs. She has been spending a lot of time over there alone while working on a project: what a trooper!

So, has anyone died in the house? I learned an older man may have died there post Meusebach era, but I do have documented proof a teenage girl, Anita Meusebach, died in the house in 1900. In fact, as was the custom back then, her wake was in the home. Is the Meusebach House haunted? We can’t say for sure as we don’t have any recorded proof. Maybe everything we’ve seen and heard could be reasonably explained. But until we know for sure, those of us who work at Villa Finale will make sure we spend as little time over there as needed!

In this video, our staff shares some their odd experiences with you!

Care to find out if Villa Finale is truly “haunted”? Join our staff online for a fun and, hopefully not-too-scary, Facebook LIVE virtual ghost hunt on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 7:00pm! Click on the link below for event information … BOO! Happy Halloween!

Celebrating Hispanic Artists: Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela

As we continue to observe Hispanic Heritage Month, Museum Attendant, Doug Daye takes a close look at Latino artists Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela!

By Doug Daye

Get an intimate look at two inspirational Hispanic artists, Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela. Though their work was phenomenal, both artists had to face much adversity and sadness over the course of their lives. Examining the difficulties they had to face truly deepens the love and respect for the legacy they left behind for all to enjoy.

Frida Kahlo


Frida Kahlo was born on July 9, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico. Her father, Wilhem, was a German photographer who immigrated to Mexico and married Matilde Calderón y González, a mestiza woman. During her childhood, Kahlo contracted polio which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. The disease damaged her right and left foot which made her walk with a limp after she recovered. She went on to study at the National Preparatory School in 1922 where she became very popular with her fellow students and politically active by joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party. In 1925, Kahlo, along with her boyfriend at the time, Alejondro Gomez Arias, became involved in a tragic bus accident that caused damage to her spine and pelvis. After returning home from the Red Cross Hospital to recuperate further, Kahlo completed her first self-portrait and gave it to Arias. In 1929, Kahlo married well-known muralist Diego Rivera. Following Rivera’s career, they lived in multiple places including San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. Their relationship was very strained and tainted by infidelity. Khalo suffered much heartbreak in her marriage to Rivera including a miscarriage in 1934. They divorced in 1939 but then remarried a year later.

Khalo painting while convalescing following the bus accident in 1925. From

Frida Khalo’s life was filled with challenges that were both physical and emotional that she displayed in much of her artwork. She kept a diary of her drawings and her inner thoughts up until her death in 1954. The Dolores Olmedo Museum in Xochimilco, Mexico City, displays the intimate, colorful pages of her diary on their online exhibit!

Frida Khalo’s diary can be viewed on the Google Arts and Culture website here:

Also, take a look at photographs from her life and her famous artwork at the Frida Kahlo Museum’s online exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Vida la Vida” here:

Patrociño Barela

Patrociño Barela from

Patrociño Barela was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908. He left home at a young age after his mother died, to search for work. He found work as a laborer in Denver, Colorado and became married to a widow with three children, before moving to New Mexico in 1930. He began crafting his own wood sculptures after being commissioned to reconstruct a wooden devotional carving, known colloquially in New Mexico as a bulto, and also commonly known as santo. For over 30 years he worked carving figures of men and women, to symbolize family dynamics, as well as many religious figures, eventually becoming one of the foremost santeros, or carvers of wooden saints. Barela’s art gained notoriety after Russell Vernon Hunter, director of the Works Progress Administration took notice and included his work in the Public Works of Art Project in 1935. Though his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and he was praised as the “most dramatic discovery” to come out of the exhibition, he was uninterested in fame and money. He unfortunately died in a fire in his woodshed in 1964. Barela is noted as being the first Mexican-American to receive national recognition for his work and his talent has been greatly admired by other artists, especially his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Barela with his son in New Mexico, 1936. From Wikimedia Commons Archives of American Art.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico has an online exhibit dedicated to Patrociño Barela. The exhibit gives details about his sensational artwork including “Untitled: Portrait of a Black Man” which he dedicated to a black family that helped him in his time of need.

The online collection can be viewed here:

Learn more about Patrociño Barela here:

Ten “Lesser-Known” Notable & Influential Hispanic-American Figures

Villa Finale is observing Hispanic Heritage Month with a series of blog posts and videos highlighting different aspects of Hispanic culture in the United States. We begin with a blog post by Villa Finale’s Executive Director, Jane Lewis, who will spotlight influential figures some may not be familiar with.

Jane Lewis

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15.  National Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the contributions Hispanic-Americans have made to American society and culture at large, and honors five of our Central American neighbors who celebrate their independence in September. 

The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988, upon the approval of Public Law 100-402.

The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September18, respectively.

The following, lesser-known Hispanic-Americans have played key roles in elevating the experiences, culture and art of Latinos and weaving them into American society through their service and bodies of work. Their service and work have broken barriers, helped tell the civil rights struggles and expanded the understanding of Latinos in the U.S., and added to the many dimensions of the American international culture.

  1. Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya (from Flickr)

Rudolfo Anaya was considered the godfather of contemporary Chicano literature. Noted for his 1972 novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, the themes and cultural references of the story had a lasting impression on fellow Latino writers. It was subsequently adapted into a film and an opera. His father, Martín Anaya, was a vaquero from a family of cattle workers and sheepherders. His mother, Rafaelita (Mares), was from a family of farmers from Puerto De Luna in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexico. The beauty of the desert flatlands of New Mexico, referenced as the llano in Anaya’s writings, had a profound influence on his early childhood.

Anaya’s family relocated from rural New Mexico to Albuquerque when he was in the eighth grade, where he graduated from high school in 1956. This experience later appeared as an autobiographical allusion in his novel “Tortuga.” Following high school, he earned a B.A. in English and American Literature from the University of New Mexico in 1963, after which he went on to complete two master’s degrees.  In 2016, Anaya received the National Humanities Medal for his portrayal of the American southwest and the depiction of the Chicano experience.

2. Macario Garcia

Macario Garcia (from

Macario Garcia was born in Mexico in 1920 before his family immigrated to Texas in search of a better life. He grew up working as a cotton farmer before World War II broke out, prompting him to enlist. On November 27, 1944, García’s platoon was trapped by enemy fire in Grosshau, Germany. Realizing that his company could not advance because it was pinned down, Garcia went alone and destroyed two enemy emplacements and captured four prisoners. Despite being wounded himself, he continued to fight on with his unit until the battle was over. He became the first Mexican immigrant to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration. Just a few years later he was granted American citizenship.

3. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Rodolfo Gonzales (from UNO Grace Abbott School of Social Work’s Facebook page)

Rodolfo Gonzalez grew up in a tough neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, during the Great Depression, which took an especially heavy toll on Mexican Americans. His father instilled a sharp sense of history from his native Mexico and encouraged his son to take pride in his heritage. Considered one of the founders of the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales helped organize Mexican Americans in the fight for equality, including the right to unionize, access to education and voting rights. As an activist, Gonzales founded Crusade for Justice, a civil rights and cultural organization that advocated for the rights of Hispanic-Americans.

Gonzalez is perhaps most widely known for his poem “Yo Soy Joaquín (“I Am Joaquín”), which confronts cultural multiplicity and the oppression of Chicano Americans in the U.S.  Gonzales was a talented boxer prior to his activist career, winning the Golden Glove championships in his youth. He died in April 2005, leaving behind a legacy of Chicano empowerment and pride.

4. Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera (from

Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in a family of migrant workers who traveled throughout California, taking work where they could and often living in tents. Settling in San Diego, Herrera graduated from high school and received a scholarship to UCLA, later earning a master’s degree from Stanford and an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As his career flourished, Herrara’s experiences as a poor campesino continued to influence his writing. The 21st U.S. Poet Laureate and the first Hispanic-American Poet Laureate, Herrera held this esteemed position from 2015–2017. During his time as California’s Poet Laureate in 2012, Herrera created the I-Promise Joanna/Yo te Prometo Joanna Project, which focuses on anti-bullying and advocacy of the arts for children.

5. Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta (from

Born as Dolores Clara Fernandez in northern New Mexico in 1930, Dolores Huerta followed a family tradition of activism. Her father was a farmworker and union activist, while her mother was involved in numerous civic organizations. Huerta found her voice while serving as an organizer for the Stockton (California) Community Service Organization (CSO). It was during this time that she met a fellow organizer, Cesar Chavez. The two bonded and in 1962, they formed the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). Throughout her long career, Huerta has advocated for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and Latinx rights, and continues to do so to this day at age 90. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was taken from Huerta’s words from NFWA strikes: “Si se puede,” which translates to “Yes we can.”

6. Octaviano Larrazolo

Octaviano Larrazolo (from

Born in 1859 in Allende, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Octaviano Larrazolo would go on to influence U.S. thinking on Hispanic issues. Larrazolo moved to Arizona in 1875 with Reverend J.B. Salpointe, who taught him theology. Larrazolo taught in Tucson for a year before eventually settling in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and becoming involved with the state’s Democratic Party. Working his way up the political chain, Larrazolo was elected Governor of New Mexico in 1918. He was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1928, becoming the first Hispanic to accomplish such a feat. Larrazolo fell ill soon after taking office and died just six months into his Senate term, but his unfortunate end didn’t prevent Larrazolo from making his permanent mark on Hispanic-American history.

7. Joseph Phillip Martinez

Joseph P. Martinez (from

Joseph Phillip Martinez was the first Hispanic-American to receive a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University in the 20th century. He was the founding Dean at The New School of Architecture, previously teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Martinez’s broad professional practice has garnered many awards including a National AIA Presidential Award and a National AIA Citation. He was named by the National Association of Land Grant Universities and Colleges as Alumni of the Century for the University of California San Diego (the only other Hispanic-American honored was Henry Cisneros from Texas A&M University). Martinez’s more than 40 years of professional practice using his Eclectic Design Methodology has resulted in a portfolio of unique works of architecture, earning him recognition as the “Father of Chicano Architecture.

8. Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral (from

Born as Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga in Chile in 1889, poet and educator Gabriela Mistral was the first Hispanic-American person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Although she was no stranger to tragedy, she used her pain to create lasting works of poetry. Throughout her career, Mistral traveled the world as a writer and educator, teaching at Columbia University, Vassar College, and the University of Puerto Rico. She died in New York in 1957, twelve years after winning the Nobel Prize.

9. Ruben Salazar

Ruben Salazar (from

Ruben Salazar was just an infant when his family immigrated across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. He would go on to become one of the first Hispanic-American journalists in mainstream media. His work was particularly significant because it focused on injustices being done to those in the Chicano community. Salazar served in the United States army before becoming a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.  In “Who is A Chicano,” Salazar explained the plight of Hispanic-Americans struggling to find identity and equality: “Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.” While covering a protest of the Vietnam War, the Chicano Moratorium in 1970, his life was cut short by a tear gas projectile thrown by the police.

10. Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez (from

Luis Valdez, a director, playwright, actor and writer, received the 2015 National Medal of the Arts for bringing Chicano culture to the American public through works like “Zoot Suit,” which told the trial of Chicanos who were beaten and stripped of their zoot suits in racially-motivated attacks and the award-winning movie “La Bamba,” a biopic about rock ‘n roll musician Ritchie Valens.

Valdez also founded “Teatro Campesino” which created and performed actos or short skits on flatbed trucks, and helped dramatize the struggles of the nation’s farmworkers. First staged during the California grape boycotts organized by Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the Teatro performed across the U.S. and Mexico. Teatro Campesino is considered an integral part of the Chicano civil rights struggle.

Napoleon & “Egyptomania”: The Rosetta Stone

This is Villa Finale’s first post in our “Egyptomania” series. Join Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears, as she takes us through the birth of this craze in Europe beginning with the discovery of the famed Rosetta Stone.

Sara Breshears

The Rosetta Stone

Chances are you have heard of the Rosetta Stone and how it was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. But did you ever wonder how it was found, how exactly this language was deciphered and who did it? Well you have Napoleon to thank for that. Napoleon is credited with awakening interest in ancient Egypt and its monuments and setting the spark for ‘Egyptomania’ in Europe in the 19th and 20th century.

The Discovery

In July 1798, Napoleon launched the beginning of his campaign in Egypt in an attempt to protect French interest and trade routes in the Mediterranean. In what was a first for the time period, along with his legions and battalions of soldiers, Napoleon also brought a corps of 167 savants or technical experts called the Commission des Sciences e des Arts, which produced the Description de l’Egypte, a series of publications about Egypt. This text covered everything, from Egyptian flora, fauna, and history and was critical for making many Egyptian sources and materials widely available to Europeans for the first time ever.

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone (from

In the Egyptian port city of Rosetta, now modern-day Rashid, French soldiers working on the defenses of Fort Julien, stumbled upon the now-famous stone quite by accident. Built into a very old wall, officer Pierre-Francois Bouchard spotted a slab with inscriptions. He and his superior officer reported the find to General Jacques- Francois Menou, who happened to be at the Fort. The discovery was announced to Napoleon’s scientific association in Cairo, the Institut d’Egypte and it was noted in the report the stone contained three inscriptions, the first in hieroglyphics and the third in Greek and it was transferred to Cairo for further study.

Napoleon himself inspected the Stone before his return to France in August 1799. In 1800, an expert charged with discovering ways to copies of the text on the stone, Jean-Joseph Marcel, a printer and linguist was the first to suggest the middle text was Egyptian demotic script, which was rarely used for stone inscriptions and had been rarely seen by scholars at the time of the stone’s discovery. In fact, until this point the middle text had been misidentified as Syriac.

Jean-Joseph Marcel (from

After their eventual defeat at the hands of the British and the Ottomans and the signing of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801, the Stone along with many other artifacts were handed over to the British, who immediately shipped it to the United Kingdom for further study.

Cracking the Code

In 1802 after arriving in Portsmouth, the Rosetta Stone was placed in the British Museum under the orders of King George III and scholars raced to crack the code. A crucial key to understanding the Rosetta Stone and what it said was that it had three different languages written on it.

Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, 1874 (from

Demotic, from the Greek meaning ‘popular’, was the ‘everyday’ or administrative language of Ancient Egyptians in the later periods, while Hieroglyphics were considered the language of the gods, and thus more formal. The stone also had a section written in ancient Greek, because at the time of the stone was carved, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies (of whom the infamous Cleopatra was one) originated from Macedonia, and took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.

English physicist Thomas Young was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, which it turns out was Ptolemy.

Jean-Francois Champollion (from

A major breakthrough came when Champollion pieced together the hieroglyphics that were used to write the names of non-Egyptian rulers. He announced his discovery, based on the Rosetta stone and other texts in a paper presented at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in 1822 to an audience that included Thomas Young. A second crucial discovery came two years later in 1824 when Champollion realized the alphabetic signs were not only used for foreign names but also for the Egyptian language and names. Using his knowledge of ancient Greek and the Coptic language, which is derived from the ancient Egyptian language, he began to piece together the puzzle and he began to read hieroglyphic inscriptions in full.

What does the Rosetta Stone Say?

Ptolemy V Epiphanes came to the throne at the tender age of five. Being so young, he had a series of regents who were either reviled or incompetent and led to the loss of Egypt’s territories and general unrest. In 196 BCE Ptolemy V came of age and was crowned Pharaoh.

The Rosetta stone commemorated this event. Once part of a larger stone stele, the Stone was commissioned by the High Priests of Memphis, the text commemorates the coronation of King Ptolemy V, lists his accomplishments, and establishes his divine cult. Egyptian rulers were seen to be semi-divine and had cults to worship them as a living deity. The text on the stone goes on to command that every temple have a similar stone with text written in Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes (from

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were used well into the 4th century AD and with the final closing of the pagan temples in the 5th century knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost.

While all three texts were largely incomplete, Champollion was able to use the text to begin identifying hieroglyphics and their meanings leading to the creation of an Egyptian grammar and dictionary, which was published after his death in 1832, making Champollion the Father of Modern-day Egyptology! Once scholars could understand ancient Egyptian’s writing system, they began to develop a greater understanding of the ancient Egyptian culture and this sparked further interest in Egypt itself!

Rosetta Stone (from

Since Champollion’s groundbreaking discovery, Egyptologists have made major progress in further understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ancient Egyptian language and its rules.

These days the Rosetta Stone sits pride of place in the Egyptian galleries in The British Museum, where thousands of tourists see it every day. Looking at it now it’s hard to believe that this is what kicked off the Egyptomania craze in the 19th century and all the way up to today, and we’ll explore more of that  in later posts in our Egyptomania series!

Click here to see The British Museum’s “The Rosetta Stone” on Google Arts & Culture.

“Collecting History”: General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren Miniature Wedding Album

This item was meant to be a souvenir commemorating the wedding of Charles Sherwood Stratton (stage name, General Tom Thumb) to Lavinia Warren in February of 1863. Both were performers for P.T. Barnum. Although the event took place during the height of the American Civil War, the wedding pushed the raging war off the front page. Thousands attended the wedding reception in New York – Barnum sold tickets to the event at $75.00 per person – and the newlyweds were even received at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln.

Barnum with his star, “General Tom Thumb” (Pinterest)

Charles, aka “Tom” was born in Connecticut in 1838. By all accounts he was a large baby but stopped growing at about five months and didn’t grow any taller than about 3’. He was still four years old when P.T. Barnum – a distant relative of Stratton – began “exhibiting” him at his American Museum in New York. Barnum taught him to sing, dance, and do impressions of famous people like Napoleon. Because Charles turned out to be a natural performer, he became all the rage with audiences in New York. Tom Thumb became a millionaire under Barnum.

Lavinia Warren (Wikipedia)

Lavinia was born in Massachusetts in 1842 to a well-respected New England family. Both she and her sister Minnie had dwarfism, a condition caused by pituitary disorder, one of the possible occurrences of family intermarriage. When Lavinia was 16, she began her career as a teacher but was lured into show business, especially after following the success of “General Tom Thumb”; first as a dancer onboard a Mississippi showboat, and later managed by Barnum as one of his performers. Reportedly, she fell for Charles Stratton – “Tom” – during their first meeting.

Wedding party, 1863. Lavinia’s sister, Minnie is at the far right and “Commodore Nutt,” who had pursued Lavinia, is at the far left.

Photographer Mathew Brady took the image of the couple that would be turned into a bestselling carte-de-visite – or calling card – that was licensed to other photographers and lithographers. This little locket was shaped to look like a suitcase with the words “Somebody’s Luggage” which is a reference to an 1862 short story by Charles Dickens. The 12 images inside were taken by Brady. Note: the baby in the photographs was not theirs. It was meant to show Lavinia had good domestic skills and therefore would be a great wife to “Tom.” Charles died in 1883 (he was 45). Lavinia remarried ten years later and died in 1919.

Photographer Mathew Brady (

You can see the video that accompanies this blog post here: