Friday, November 28, 2008

A Journey Through Christmas Past (or How to Have an Old-fashioned Christmas)

If you haven't figured it out by now, I absolutely love the Christmas Season. And I do my best to make it what I want it to be. This means, to me, giving it that old-time look and feel that people only dream (or sing) about.
Just like the ones I "used to know."
Well, not really.
My youthful Christmas's were wonderful, but they weren't like the songs you hear. Nor were they old-fashioned.
But, as fine as my Christmas's were when I was young, it was the "Currier & Ives" Christmas's that I always wanted.
So, now, as an adult, I have an old fashioned, traditional Christmas - I am doing my best to make the lyrics of the Christmas songs come alive.
And, so far it's been working - for the last 20+ years, it's been working.

I have been able to do this through a number of different means.

First off is the music. As I have written in a previous blog, I choose period-sounding old-world Christmas music, usually performed on authentic antique instruments such as a forte' piano, hammered dulcimer, fiddle, music box, traditional vocals (no divas please!), and the like. Cd's of this type are readily available at Amazon.

Simply Dickens performing Old World Christmas carols

Click below to read my blog on Christmas Music.

Sounds of the Season

Next comes the atmosphere - and this means candlelight. When I was a child, my mother would begin to light candles right after Labor Day. It gives any home - no matter how recently built - that old-time-y look. We carry on the tradition of lighting candles at my house throughout the season, beginning on Thanksgiving. We burn the tall, thin, beeswax real candles - not the fat, perfume-y, over-priced Hallmark ones.
Yes, we always eat our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners strictly by candlelight during the darkened evening hours, and our Christmas dinner this year will be in the same way, as will numerous meals between now and then.

Decorations...this is a tuffy. We have a mix of 19th and 20th century in our Christmas decor: garland around the ceiling with tiny (electric) lights tucked inside, for instance, hangs in our living room and kitchen. Also, on our computer desk we have an old (circa 1950) nativity scene. I also have a few of my Dickens Department 56 lighted houses on the piano - modern, yes, but they have that old, traditional look and feel - they show the various scenes of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol," including the major characters of that story along 'brick' and 'cobblestone' roads.
I normally set up four tables for my Dickens lighted houses display, but I have no room at this time to do that.
Now, in our back gathering room, we have our electrically lit (with real candles attached to the branches as well) spruce Christmas tree, freshly cut down with help from my children. Yes, we go - as a family - north to Western's Tree farm in Sanilac County and get a horse-drawn carriage ride out to the trees we like, chop one down, then get picked up by said horse and cart, and ride back to the log cabin to pay for it. On the way home we stop for lunch - usually the old time period food This year it was the traditional A&W hamburgers. Very Victorian.
Once home, the tree is placed in the stand and then we all decorate it with period-looking decorations, including popcorn (not real but very real looking) and old-time-y bulbs. We also have all sorts of odds and ends upon our tree. It's fun to look at for the first time visitor.

Our 2008 Christmas Tree

I put up greenery (traditional cedar) without any sort of lighting attached throughout this room, and have my beeswax candles with the glass globe coverings on our table and mantle. Another manger scene, a wooden Noah's Ark set, a nutcracker, and an old world Santa Claus completes the picture.
It all blends in well with our antiques.

Our 'gathering room' during the holidays

There are so many "Hallmark" Christmas decorations out there that many woman (sorry - not sexist, but that's who I have seen purchase most of them ) just have to buy. Items like singing Christmas Trees, wreaths that speak, or the silly flags that show a snowman hanging from the front porch do not make for a traditional Christmas. I'll be honest, I personally do not even consider them cute. Now, I will admit to having a singing Christmas Homer Simpson, but he is kept near our very modern TV. And that's where he stays. And next to him is a lighted Department 56 "A Christmas Story" (Ralphie and the Red-Rider bb gun) house.

So that is how we decorate our house.

Now, there is much more to do if you want to have an old-time Christmas (or even if you just want to enjoy Christmas period):

Greenfield Village has a wonderful tradition of presenting "Holiday Nights," where folks can visit the open-air museum at night and see homes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and how they would have been decorated (or not decorated, in some instances) during their time. (hint: this is where so many of my ideas have come from).

A Christmas scene from the past at Greenfield Village's Firestone Farm

To see these old homes as they would have looked way back when is a site for sure. And the Christmas lessons taught in each are fascinating. And the smells of the food being cooked is mouth watering. The main street area is just bustling with people - the whole Village makes you feel as if you stepped into a Currier & Ives picture print.

The hustle and bustle of Christmas Past at Greenfield Village's Main Street

There are free carriage rides, Model T rides, and carousel rides to add to the evening.
They also are open during the day on the weekends for those who choose not to go at night (or missed buying the tickets - every night sells out quickly - get you tickets now!)

The Holly Dickens Festival is a fun way to spend a day as well, cavorting with the characters right out of Dickens' story and hearing Christmas music new and old performed by small chorale groups and full choirs. And the authentic Victorian setting of the beautiful Village of Holly cannot be beat. This festival is absolutely FREE! It takes place the three weekends in December before Christmas. Yes, and yours truly is Charles Dickens himself!

In fact, in one skit, I write the story of "A Christmas Carol" and the characters of Scrooge and Cratchit come alive (see above photo). We also put on the "Christmas Carol" skit as well, although it is a bit different from what Dickens originally intended. It's great fun!

The Crocker House in Mt. Clemens (built in 1869) has a Wallow and Wassail every year, with a minimal cost, that brings Christmas "home," so to speak, by way of roasting chestnuts on an open fire, live music (including a traditional pump organ and singing and the vocal music of Simply Dickens), great traditional food, homemade sugar plums, and, once again, a period atmosphere.

Kim Parr makes sugar plums at the Crocker House in Mt. Clemens

There are also Christmas festivities in many of the towns throughout lower Michigan: Waterloo, Lexington, Rochester...and others.

If you do not live in the Detroit area, I would bet there are similar events that take place in your area as well. A quick search of your newspaper or a call to some of the city halls in your area can direct you. Or, start one of your own. Yes, it is a lot of work, but the end result can be quite satisfying.

Christmas shopping does not have to be a chore. In fact, it can be quite fun, especially if you shop on line. You can get great items at a very low cost. We have been able to get twice as many things for us and our kids than if we went to the mall. And, that's the best part - you don't have to go to the mall!!
Here's my blog (written very recently) about Christmas shopping:

Christmas Does Not Have To Mean Overspending

Another tradition, modern in a traditional sense, is to watch classic movies. I especially love Dickens "A Christmas Carol," (of course) and watch several versions AND read the book yearly. Great Victoriana.
Other favorites include The Waltons "The Homecoming," "It's A Wonderful Life," "The Santa Clause (the 1st one)," "I'll Be Home For Christmas (the one with Hal Holbrook and Eva Marie Saint from 1988 - an excellent Christmas movie set in WWII)," "The Gift of Love," and so many others.

As I said earlier, we eat our Christmas dinner by candle light. Being that we are Civil War reenactors, many times we will eat while wearing our period clothing. Talk about having the "look"! But, even without the old-time clothing, the candle-lit dinner certainly is an awesome atmosphere. And, having soft hammered dulcimer music playing in the background (the stereo is in another room) adds greatly to the desired effect. And, try some period food and drink - it wouldn't be Christmas at our house without my wife's traditional wassail, a period Christmas/12th Night drink. You can add 'spirits' if you desire, for a more authentic taste.

Our 'gathering room' table on Christmas Night 2006

Having good friends over will make your Christmas that much more special. Invite your friends over to celebrate with you, whether it's for dinner, dessert, or just to visit.
And if you have re-enactor friends, well, wearing period clothing will make it even better!

Oh, one more thing- do not be afraid to say "Merry Christmas."

And when gift opening time comes around, take your time and take turns, allowing one person to open one gift at a time per round. This way, everyone has the opportunity to enjoy everyone else's treasures. Yes, this can work with young children as well. Be a parent to them and insist that this is the way it will be done.

Don't forget the most important part of the Holiday: please take time - whether you attend church or not - to spend with the One who's birth we are celebrating. Yes, yes, I realize Jesus was probably not born on December the 25th, but we are still celebrating His birthday, are we not? Read the biblical passage of Jesus' birth (Luke 2: 1-20), if for no one else's than for your own sake.

Christmas can be what you want it to be, with minimal costs. Yes, you may initially get a few off-handed remarks (especially from family members), but they, too, will learn to appreciate what you have done for yourself.

I have been told that I live in the past (thank you!), that I live in a fantasy world that either never existed or hasn't existed in many years (thank you again!). OK. So what's the point? I am living out what folks just think about doing.
Or what singers sing about.
And I'm having a blast!



Mrs. G said...

I really appreciated your comments toward the end of this post. We, too, are living an idyllic, wonderful life that so many people admire but don't know how to have. I am so thankful that we've made the sacrifices to have what we do!

Historical Ken said...

It's not really too hard is it? And it truly gives one satisfaction.
Thank you for your kind comments.