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Columbia: A Taste of Christmas Past

November 23, 1986|STEVEN A. TURNER | Turner is a San Rafael free-lance writer.

COLUMBIA, Calif. — This holiday season, if only for an evening, you may resurrect youthful Christmas whimsy at the Victorian Christmas Feast at the City Hotel in the heart of California Gold Country. This beautifully restored hotel annually hosts a feast that is unlike any dinner you will attend this Christmas season.

"We ask our guests to dress for dinner in costume or black tie," said hotel manager Tom Bender, "although it's certainly not required. Most people attend in Victorian costumes they make or rent."

Not only are the dinner guests in Victorian period outfits, but the hotel and the entire town of Columbia are restored to the way they looked in the 19th Century.

Gold Rush Country

Columbia is in the western foothills of the Sierra centered in the Mother Lode, a mile-wide network of gold-bearing quartz that stretches from Mariposa to Georgetown. A town that boomed to a population of 6,000 at the height of the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Columbia was home for only 300 people by the 1890s, about the same number that live there now.

The town is much as it was 100 years ago, with many of its original buildings still standing. Since the Columbia State Historic Park was established in 1945, some structures have been rebuilt, others have been restored.

Let's travel back in time to 1890. Tonight the City Hotel will regale its visitors with its annual feast. This December evening in Columbia is chilly and still. Smoke from the chimneys rises slowly to form an aromatic haze, then drifts quietly away. It's that time of early evening when twilight has deepened nearly to darkness, but the blue-black sky is still bright as if reflecting big-city lights from just over the horizon.

The thump of boots on the elevated boardwalk outside the hotel is soon followed by the clop-clop of a horse passing down the street. The few people on the streets are dressed warmly, strolling leisurely and gazing at the Christmas decorations and displays in the Main Street shop windows.

Farther down Main, near State Street, the blacksmith has just closed his shop for the day. He stops to chat with a Dickensian peddler hawking roasted chestnuts.

Dressed for Dinner

Beneath the soft glow of the street lights, visitors for the feast begin to arrive in pairs and small groups. The elegantly dressed ladies, with boa-feathered hats, floor-length outfits with blouses buttoned to the neck and parasols over their shoulders, are accompanied by gentlemen in top hats, vests and tails, with ascots or string ties and ruffled shirts.

The hotel's dinner celebration could easily have become contrived, the culinary equivalent of a trip to Frontierland at Disneyland. But that isn't the case. It feels to many diners that they are dressed for dinner, not dressed up in a costume for dinner.

George Morgan began building the hotel in 1856. For tonight's dinner, the "George Morgans" are once again greeting their arriving guests in the hotel's upstairs parlor, as they may have done in 1890. Cliff Williams and his wife, Cindy, staff members of the hotel, are portraying these characters from the hotel's past.

Guests mingle, sipping champagne, remarking on the splendid outfits worn this evening or wandering out on the balcony overlooking the Main Street strollers. Four friends of Morgan's, a group called Mirth and Glee, stop by to entertain the gathering with a few spirited Christmas carols.

Morgan leads his 50 guests down from the parlor to a sumptuously furnished dining room. A twinkling Christmas tree sends reflections scattering off the wine goblets, water glasses and other crystal on the U-shaped table. The festive red tablecloth provides contrast to the white china place settings and centerpieces of brass lanterns and redwood cuttings.

The meal begins with smoked quail and oysters and the first of three wines that will be served during the meal. "I researched the dinner carefully before we began this Victorian Feast four years ago," Bender said. "The authenticity of all menu items can be verified. I may have stretched a point only with the oysters. Although this is an 1890s dinner, the last oysters were taken from San Francisco Bay in the 1880s."

Toasts and More Toasts

As the appetizers are brought to the diners, Morgan rises for the first of many toasts that he will make during the course of the evening: "To my friends who are able to join my wife and me this evening for our Christmas celebration, you have made this a joyous and memorable occasion." Later toasts will be to the health of the mayor, the yuletide happiness of the waiter and the talents of the piano player.

Mayor Sullivan, a shady politician from Columbia's past, the ever-frugal and Scrooge-like waiter Benjamin and several other characters are played by hotel staff members or actors from the local repertory theater. The exchanges between Morgan and the other characters that come and go during the evening caused one delighted diner to exclaim, "I feel like I'm in the middle of a play!"

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