Diamonds at Breakfast: Christmas among the Millionaires:

lavish christmas tree

Christmas With the 400


Railway Magnates Pass Around Diamonds at Breakfast

Great Swells Toboggan Down Stairs on Dinner Trays and the Best Flyers Take Prizes

Millionaire Youngsters and Their Presents.

New York, Dec. 23.

The smart set is conspicuous by its absence form town on all holiday occasions, and of late years the Christmas festivities are almost without exception arranged to take place in the country.

Christmas is a house day, and city houses, however magnificent, are never as homelike as country houses. The country house Christmas, with its gathering of young people, the great Yule logs burning in the hall, and jollity everywhere, is one of the best of all the old-time customs which have been revived of late.

Probably nine houses out of ten have a tree as part of the festivities, and if the personator of Santa Claus be a man of talent and understands his “make up,” not only in guise, but in spirit, he is a genuine delight not only to the children, but all round.

I remember one tree at Mr. J.S. Ellis’ place on the Sound, which was set up in the dark, wainscoted hall, around which stood grim coats of mail the wall ornamented with odd and curious weapons effectively grouped. The steel and armor glistening and reflecting back the yellow firelight and the twinkling lights from the tree, caused the modern American house to assume quite the air of feudal age and dignity. Mr. Heninger did “St. Nicholas” with a distinguished effect.

This season is regarded as essentially the children’s time, and all the resources of the house go to making them a holiday. Except among close and intimate friends and relatives little or no exchange of presents is made by “grown up” people.

When a man is under great obligations as to hospitality accepted, if there are children in the house, he has his opportunity to display liberality to a large extent, and his generosity can take any form according to his means, from a good sized bond to the merest trifle. But an exchange of gifts, unless between fiancées, is not considered good form. Flowers are always permissible, and, as in France, the New Year sees the florist reap untold gains from the large quantities of flowers and plants.


I know of more than one country house where the Christmas tree is given almost entirely for the pleasure and entertainment of the children of servants and dependents about the place. It is made quite a feature of the holiday festivities at “Plaisance,” Mr. James Waterbury’s beautiful home, and the Waterbury children themselves derive no end of fun and excitement in arranging to make the yearly spree a success.

Purely fin de siècle are these youngsters in many respects and full of much wordly wisdom; with it all they insist upon having their own Christmas gifts in the old orthodox fashion and secure the biggest and longest stockings that can be borrowed or begged, which they hang by the big open fireplace in the play room; and the gray of dawn sees them eagerly investigating their contents.


Mr. Willie P. Vanderbilt has always made a great feature of the entertainment side of Christmas. His country house on Long Island has been the scene of much lavish holiday hospitality.

Mrs. Vanderbilt, like all women of taste, does not believe in making Xmas gifts of great value. Her idea is that presents on such an occasion should be valuable rather by association than intrinsically.

This season the W.K. Vanderbilt’s will pass their Christmas at sea—or perhaps in Madeira. However, the festivities on board the Valiant promises to be as jolly as if the roof tree of the Oakdale house and the winter sky of Long Island was above them. Just before the ship sailed certain large boxes and crates marked with significant names came on board, and the coops full of live fowls gave an assurance that the good cheer of Christmas would not be wanting.


Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt believes in old customs. She says: “We are thoroughly old-fashioned and orthodox in our Christmas ideas. We believe in stockings, Christmas trees, turkey and plum pudding. Possibly my Puritan ancestors would have considered my plum pudding sinfully symbolic, but we have outgrown that sentiment. To my mind the essence of the day should be peace and good will and universal kindliness.

“So far as gifts are concerned, I incline towards simplicity. Always a moderate gift, if chosen in the line of a person’s mental life, is better than an expensive one not in such accord.

“For instance, one of my brothers-in-law would be more pleased with an obsolete, last-century edition of some rare old book than if you were to give him a handsome steam yacht or a railway!

“The best and most appreciated present is the one into whose production the most personality has entered. I value more a poor picture painted for me by a friend than  good one bought in a shop.”


Occasionally, people give gifts in a very eccentric fashion. Last year a railway magnate, wishing to add his contribution to the general hilarity, and yet not inclined to favour one member of his family more than another, expended much time and money in collecting a sufficient number of matched solitaire diamonds. These he took out of his pocket at the Christmas breakfast, poured them on a plate, and had them passed around the table.

You can easily imagine the novel method and the superb gifts combined brought down vigorous applause from the delighted recipients.


To-day, as I have intimated, the more old-fashioned and moderate a Christmas can be made the more effective it is. I know a very jolly house-party invited to a great country place on Long Island this ear, and all sort of fun is in anticipation.

As it is a riding country, some rare sport has been arranged for the morning entertainment. The pleasant old game of “Quintain” has been revived, wherein, if the rider hits the mark fairly with is pole, he gets a prize, while if he misses it, he is banged on the back with a bag of flour. There will probably be more misses than hits, to the amusement of the spectators.

On Christmas eve the dipping for apples is to be played. This is properly a Hallowe’en game, but on this occasion it is resorted to as a means of distributing the Christmas gift, and the fun will be intensified by the fact that each apple will contain in place of a core, some jewelled souvenir of the day.

As our ancestors were rather given to horseplay, there is a good deal of romping connected with a modern Christmas party. In fact, a very joyful sport is to toboggan down stairs on a dinner tray. This is a pet amusement at a certain country house up the Hudson, which is provided with a most convenient oak staircase. The most successful “flyer” gets the pick of the gifts, which are provided more for the fun of the thing than for their intrinsic value, but are selected with such care that each guest is proud and happy  to wear for many a long day the beautiful set ring or odd jewel won by the dinner tray process.

This form of tobogganing generally results in a “spill” at the bottom of the stairs and consequent bruises; but it is great run and is especially popular in England where his rather stout royal highness, the Prince of Wales, is a noted performer.

There is always a good deal of Saturnalia about the house-party country Christmases, and it is well for a guest to keep his room door carefully locked lest he should find on retiring that a merry party have been making “hay” with his effects, and that possibly the legs and arms of his habiliments have been sewed up, or that some man, nautically skilled, has done his sheets up into hard balls, with the ends craftily hidden. This latter trick is called “reefing,” and unless the victim knows the process of unknotting the ball, he is sure to pass a sheetless night.


Boys are more than ever interested in all outdoor sports and athletic games, since the vogue is for all such sport on the part of their elders; and the gift the small boy of recent years demands of his parents, if apparently simple, is apt to be costly. I really do not know a boy belonging to a good house that does not possess machinery enough to stock a mill.

A really clever boy is apt to suggest and get his preference in the way of presents. The Iselin boys, following in the footsteps of their father and his friends, delight in possessing large sailing models of the crack yachts of the day. Success has its penalties, as Mr. Oliver Iselin discovered when his small boy refused to be satisfied until he had a promise of a duplicate for his Christmas stocking of the fleet Vigilant, which won the America’s cup the other day. As there is but one man who can properly do this work, and he charges $300 a boat, Christmas gifts come high in some families.

The modes of giving gifts are as various as the gifts themselves. In one well-known family it is the fashion to enfold the gift in the napkin on the Xmas breakfast table.

So far as the children are concerned no wealth of money-tips or expensive toys, given in an ordinary manner, can make up for the fun of the time-honored morning stocking with its miscellaneous and crowded contents. There is one dear little girl I know whose Christmases are spent in town. She is an only child. Her mother tells me she would be perfectly miserable without the morning scramble and excitement of the stocking.

They also have a wonderful tree for her that is placed in the big library and lighted with innumerable little colored electric lights which can be turned on and off at will. On this tree are gifts for her little friends, and the whole Christmas week for her is one of prolonged joy. She is allowed to keep open house, so to speak, and for all who come in an appropriate gift is forthcoming.


Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 24 December 1893: p. 19

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil fears that Miss Dundas is badly misinformed if she believes that a “Saturnalia” consists of apple-pie beds and toboggan trays. In Mrs Daffodil’s extensive experience, it is more likely to involve tiptoeing in the corridors and an intelligent hostess who fathoms the intricacies of appropriately allocating adjoining rooms to those who wish to indulge in clandestine revels. The distribution of lavish gifts in apple cores also makes a present of a diamond bracelet to a favourite mistress less conspicuous.

The Christmases of the Vanderbilts and other millionaires were extensively reported by the press, possibly to allow those unable to scatter loose diamonds at breakfast—a hazardous practice at best if there are small children at the table—to live vicariously.

A previous holiday story of a millionaire’s Christmas cottage built in a night for his children, may be found here.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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