Sunday, November 25, 2012

O Christmas Tree: A Family Tradition

Our 2012 Christmas Tree
I wanted to take some time to share with you one of our many family Christmas traditions: taking a day and cutting down our Christmas Tree.
We live in the city - just blocks outside of Detroit - and there are plenty of Christmas Tree lots around the area. As a kid I used to go with my father to these lots to help pick out the perfect one. I remember walking through the forest of trees sitting there on this big city parking lot and imagining I was actually in a pine tree forest and we were there with our axe to cut one down. However, the constant big-city intrusion of traffic noise would constantly bring me back to my urban reality.
But it was still great fun to help get a tree - at least we got a real one when so many others were beginning to get artificial.
The first Christmas I spent living with my wife was when things changed. I knew what I wanted to do that year, and we did. We went to some place near the tip of Michigan's thumb called Dog Patch Tree Farm and, for the first time, cut down a Christmas Tree.
It was every bit as special as I had hoped it to be. And more. I was John-Boy Walton walking with Grandpa up Walton's Mountain to chop one down. I was a pioneer from the 19th century bringing Christmas into our isolated cabin.
I was...chopping down a Christmas Tree!
Sounds silly, doesn't it?
But that's me.
And we've been doing it ever since.
The Western Tree Farm cabin

The best part is my kids enjoy this tradition as well; they've never known any different. In fact, we now go to a place up in Applegate, Michigan (still in the thumb but a bit lower) called Western's Tree Farm, a family owned business. Ever since we discovered it 25 years ago it's been our tree-cutting destination. Heck! My oldest, who is getting married in six months, wasn't even born during our first Western visit!
Now, why would we go to the same place for 25 years? Well, without trying to sound like I am a part of their advertising staff, it's simply because they are the best around. They have and do everything we like. Plus they have an outrageously large amount of trees of all types. We prefer the blue spruce, and that's been our favorite tree for most of our years.
This time we took the horse ride out
It's at Western's that one can take a hayride (horse-drawn and/or tractor-pulled) out to the tree type of your choice. And, though many times we might find a tree pretty quick, we'll still walk around and look 'just because.' I mean, now I am really in a Pine tree forest. Or rather, a Christmas Tree forest, so I like to enjoy every bit of my dream come true!
The Christmas Tree forest!
With thousands to choose from, we always seem to find the 'perfect tree.'

I used to be the one to cut down the tree but I now have a couple of older sons, age 24 and 21, who do it.
They also will carry it back to the front cabin. Sometimes we wait for the cart to come and pick us up but other times it's more fun to walk. Especially with my two oldest.
Oh, I know you're expecting me to say that we sing Christmas Carols as we trudge along. Um...not with Tom and Rob; as they marched down the pathway this year, they...ahem...skipped, twirled, and quoted Monty Python and Beatles movie lines as they did so.
Ahhh...tradition...

At the front of the farm they have a tree shaker and wrapper and they'll tie it to the roof of your car or van. *For free.* I like that.
They also have a small log cabin store that, many years ago, was built with the logs from their farm  (I remember when they were building it). Inside, one would expect to see all of the cheap Chinese commercial crap that one finds everywhere to make a quick buck. But guess what? Many of the items here are Michigan made from the locals in the Sanilac County area. Plus there are all kinds of greenery such as roping and wreaths and the like.
Warming up by the fireplace - a real fireplace!
All pretty good quality American-made stuff.
And then there's the homemade cookies & hot chocolate with a roaring fire in the fireplace.
Tell me that isn't "just like the ones I used to know"!
It takes us around an hour and a half to get up to Western's from where we live, but it's well worth the drive north from my house.
Especially when it snows (it didn't this year, unfortunately).
On our way home from the tree farm we'll stop off in the small village of Lexington to eat at the finest burger place around: Wimpy's. The burgers taste just like bar burgers without the adult surroundings. It's a regular diner-type restaurant with booths and fry cooks. Again, just like the ones I used to know.
The beautiful 19th century village of Lexington, Michigan

Of course, you have to visit the store right next door to Wimpy's, an old-fashioned general store (again, say it with me: just like the ones I used to know) with penny candy, nic-nacs, antiques hanging from the ceiling, and a variety of interesting items for sale.
Inside the general Store

Our bellies full and candy paid for, it's back on the road where we make it home as the daylight begins to wane. I immediately set the tree up in the tree stand and prepare it for decorating. My children really bite at the bit for hanging the ornaments - yes, even my two oldest - and we keep the style in a pseudo-Victorian manner. Not necessarily authentically so, mind you - we can't afford that - but in the picture-book vein of Victoriana. We use decorations that we have purchased over our 27 year marriage - most purchased in shops from Frankenmuth and at Greenfield Village. With the variety of decorations, I like to think that our tree is fun and interesting  to look at. No matter how many times you glance at it you always seem to see something you hadn't seen before.
Here are just a few of our ornaments:
Yes, you do see characters from Dickens "A Christmas Carol" hanging on our tree!
I'm not quite sure what this is, but I believe it's a sort of cornucopia. Do you see the caroler and a Dickens book? Yes, we do light our candles once or twice during the season.
More Victorian-style ornaments including a pineapple. What's a pineapple have to do with Christmas? During early Colonial days in the United States, families would set a fresh pineapple in the center of the table as a colorful centerpiece of the festive meal, especially when visitors joined them in celebration. This symbolized the utmost in welcome and hospitality to the visitor, and the fruit would be served as a special desert after the meal. Often when the visitor spent the night, he was given the bedroom which had the pineapples carved on the bedposts or headboard--even if the bedroom belonged to the head of the household.
What's a Christmas Tree without a pocket watch attached? And my 3rd son loves lighthouses. Then there's the Victorian-style Christmas scene ornament
Wooden ice skates, a traditional Santa, and a colonial lantern help to make the tree a bit more unique.
And here are a couple of replica Victorian decorations: a tiny box with a painted cover and a cloth bell (middle top)
It's wonderful to have such traditions as this, and I am so happy and bless'd to have a family that gladly loves and participates in it as much as I do.
I'm sure this will be passed down to their children and their children's children.
At least I hope so...
Yes, we do light the candles on our tree and have done so for 27 years. Believe me when I say I take all precautions when I do this. It is truly is a beautiful sight to see.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Season.









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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Premier Night of "Lincoln"

We were just bonkers to see the new "Lincoln" movie!
On Friday the 16th of November 2012 a few of us who reenact the American Civil War era dressed in our period finest and spent a fine evening together to see the new "Lincoln" movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham and Sally Field as his wife Mary.
Back in the 1990's seeing a period movie while wearing clothing of the time was pretty commonplace. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was the "Star Wars" crowd that started this whole "dress like the characters in the movie" deal. At least, for me they were the first that I've heard of doing this practice.
Anyhow, I've only done this twice - the first time was for "The Conspirator" a couple years ago and the other was, well, just two days ago (as this is written).
Both times were very enjoyable, but for "Lincoln" it was a blast. The main reason is because we made it into a sort of event. In fact, I actually did make it into a Facebook event and invited (or tried to invite) as many of my reenactor friends as I could, though I inadvertently forgot to invite a few (and for that I am truly sorry. Next time I will just announce without invitations).
So, for the "Lincoln" movie I had a pretty fair response with a total of 18 reenactors showing up dressed in their period clothing. Most were from one of the units I belong to - the 21st Michigan - though there were members from the 17th Michigan, the 24th Michigan, and a couple of independents that joined us as well.
Many of us began our evening by going to a restaurant near the theater - a nice reasonably-priced family joint that had a fine variety of food to choose from. We created quite a stir upon entering the place, and the stares and 'hidden' camera phones snapped away from the other patrons. A few souls were 'brave' enough to actually come up to ask what we were doing.
It was a perfect start to our evening.
My wife and I at the local premier of the new "Lincoln" movie
At the theater we created another stir. Well, first off there was some concern that they wouldn't allow us to enter the theater while in 'costume' due to what happened last summer in Colorado with the jerk dressed in a Batman costume shooting the place (and people) up. However, we explained that for our period clothing we do not have our faces covered and that we dress authentically to the period in which we represent. It was pretty obvious to the management that we were all going as a group of living historians and not as nut cases - at least not violent ones! (Come on...I'm just kidding here...)
The latest Twilight movie also opened on this day and I would venture to bet that the greater majority of patrons were there to see that. I, of course, played into that and when a customer would ask me which movie we were here to see I answered with "Twilight."
Some actually believed it. And to top that, I asked one high school aged girl who didn't seem to be particularly smart in history (she asked me if I was Thomas Jefferson!) what war was going on during the time of President Lincoln's administration.
*sigh* She had no idea whatsoever.
Even her mother didn't know...
But we had fun taking photos and speaking to those patrons with a bit more intelligence.
A few of our reenacting friends did not dress in their period clothing for a variety of reasons, but I was still very glad they came. To me, whether you dress period or modern, I'd rather have you there than not.
There is not much that is sadder than seeing reenactors dressed modern while their friends are dressed period!
The movie itself was done very well. It was not the typical Lincoln movie you've seen previously. It was an intense drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment - did I say intense? - and everything about it lent to a strong taste of authenticity. Day-Lewis, Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and the other actors did an amazing and realistic job portraying men and women from history. As far as I could tell, the clothing and fashions were spot on and the sets were exceptional - very authentic. The sound effects are the real thing - click HERE to read about that. Day-Lewis portrayed Lincoln very realistically; all of the mannerisms I've read on the man and of his contemporaries were here. But the best part of this movie, to me, was they didn't deify Lincoln and make him out to be some god-like mythological creature. They, instead, showed him as a human, they showed the whys and wherefores of those who didn't like the man, and spoke of his own questionable 'trampling' of the Constitution. They also showed him as one who believed strongly in his case and cause. It was as balanced as I have seen of the man yet on film, and for Hollywood that is very commendable. 
This was a special evening for those of us who attended

Seeing a historical movie while dressed in period clothing may seem a bit of an oxymoron. But it's really not. Each of us does this sort of thing for differing reasons. My own personal reason(s) for dressing up in modern surroundings are mainly because anytime I do something historical, dressing period accents it, even if it's in a modern setting. I do also enjoy the general public's reaction and, for the most part, the questions and discussions that sometime ensue.
But when the opportunity to get a decently large group together to do something like this arises, it kind of becomes a celebratory atmosphere.
And that made it a night to remember!










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Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Lincoln" and Bringing History to Life

The new movie about Abraham Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field is being released this Friday. Yes, I plan to see it, as do a number of my reenacting friends. And, yes, we are planning to wear our period clothing. Okay, so we're a little off. But that's what we like to do - I guess it just kind of adds to the entire experience of historical movie watching. Sort of like "you are there."
Like I said, we're  little bit off.
I've been hearing and reading about this movie quite a bit, and by all accounts the reviewers give it two thumbs up. The clips I have seen look pretty amazing as well.

But there is one bit of information I read that really made me stand up and take notice: it had to do with the sound effects. To make this movie come alive, the film makers actually used original sounds to give it that note of accuracy. For instance, the pocket watch Mr. Lewis (as Lincoln) has is a prop. But the sound you hear coming from it is not. That's because the sound man, Ben Burtt, recorded the ticking of one of the real time pieces Abraham Lincoln owned.
But that's not all...
The ringing of the steeple bell from St. John's Episcopal Church, of which our 16th President attended often, is heard as well, along with the sound of the church floor boards - the very same that Lincoln walked upon 150 years ago. The sound techs went as far as to even record the sound the his pew made as he sat down and got up.
But there's still more:
In the executive office of the White House, there is a clock that's been there since the time of Andrew Jackson, and the sound of that clock is used in many office scenes. Other sound effects from the White House includes door latches and the opening and closing and the knocking upon those doors - the very same doors when Lincoln was there.
But the capper may be having the opportunity to hear the squeaks from the springs of the original carriage that took the President and his wife to the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865.
Logan County Courthouse from 1840 where Lincoln once practiced law
It's these little sound-effect kind of details that bring history to life for me, whether in a movie or while at a museum. I have been lucky enough to have heard sounds that Lincoln heard as well; inside of Greenfield Village is an original courthouse where Mr. Lincoln practiced law in the 1840's. Wanting a building that was associated with our 16th President, Henry Ford found a forgotten and dilapidated structure that was, in 1929, being used as a private residence.
Research showed that when he was a young attorney Abraham Lincoln once practiced law in this walnut clapboard building, which was built in Postville (now Lincoln), Illinois in 1840. Being a circuit-riding lawyer, Mr. Lincoln would travel upon his horse to the tiny country towns within a certain perimeter - Lincoln and the other handful of circuit riding lawyer companions with him covered the Eighth Judicial Circuit which covered around 11,000 square miles - and they would follow Judge David Davis to the courthouses of the towns.
Court was in session only twice a year, and could be a raucous affair in the first three quarters of the 19th century. It was quite entertaining for the folks sitting on the hard wood benches or peeking through the windows (which were usually opened due to the heat from all of the bodies inside). In fact, it was quite the "to do" for the country townsfolk, for this was about the only time a small town could have some real big-time excitement. People from all around the neighboring communities would travel to the court building to be enthralled by the legal battles at hand; I liken it to a modern-day court-room television drama that are always so popular today. Of course, the local businesses always had red-letter days during the time the court was in session as well.
Inside the 1840 Logan County Courthouse. Notice the clock and cabinet: they once belonged to Lincoln
Some of the furnishings in this building are original Lincoln associated pieces: the John Birge wall clock, the empire chairs, and the swivel-top card table with brass paw feet are from Lincoln's Springfield home. Also, the walnut corner cupboard was made by Abraham and his father.
The resonance of my period shoe wear as I stepped on the very same floorboards as Lincoln inside this courthouse has always intrigued me. I have sat on the bench and stared at the historic items inside this building, imagining - almost hearing and seeing - the above-mentioned 19th century courtroom scenario.
Can you just see (and hear) Mr. Lincoln as a lawyer in this room, stepping heavily upon the boards? I can...
Yes, the wearing of period clothing truly does accent one's museum experience. So, I suppose, in this way I understand the importance of the sounds of history. By the way, I try to pay attention to this sort of thing no matter what historical place I'm in.
And that's why I became so excited upon hearing of the attention in sound - this small, seemingly insignificant detail - that Spielberg included in his "Lincoln" movie.
The wearing of period clothing while watching it will only accent the experience, as it almost always does.












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Friday, November 9, 2012

Dinner or Supper?

There's been some discussion of late amongst a few of us living historians on the period-correct usage for the lunch/dinner/supper terminology. In our modern times I believe it's pretty widespread and accepted to call the morning meal "breakfast," (in use in defining the morning meal since the middle ages, according to the Webster etymology dictionary) and the afternoon meal "lunch." And I've heard both "dinner" and "supper" intertwined for the evening meal.
But I have read and been told that in times past "dinner" was actually the afternoon meal with "supper" as the evening meal.
Confused? Me, too.
And so were a few other reenactors.
I decided to do a little research to try to figure this mess out. Because I want to know just what meal I am eating!
I went to the Historical Information index I created on my computer to find out where I could find the answer to this pressing question.
What's a Historical Information Index? You mean you don't have one??
Let me explain...
A number of years ago I decided to use Excel to make an index of the historical information found in my many history books and magazines. I recall attempting to find something about maple sugaring and I didn't know which of the literally hundreds (maybe over a thousand by now) mags and books to look in to find that info, which really frustrated me. As it stood then, it could've taken me a very long time to find the information from varying sources to reach my goal of a comprehensive look on the subject (I prefer to find multiple articles on whatever subject I am researching for a more rounded idea). It was then that I decided to go through my historical library magazine-by-magazine and book-by-book and index as much of the information as I could, which is still ongoing - just a little bit every evening...subject, magazine/book title, and the page the info is on.
And it has served me well, just so you know.
Anyhow, when the discussion of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper came up, a friendly discussion ensued with a bit of disagreement. So, off I went to my Historical Information index and, lo and behold, I found numerous sources to back up my "dinner" was actually the afternoon meal with "supper" as the evening meal train of thought.
So, here is what I found  -
This first source I am using is called Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War 1830-1860. Well indexed and well sourced in itself, it contains a wealth of general information of everyday life during the period mentioned:
Our servant prepares our dinner
"Breakfast was taken at 7:00, when the members of the family, completely dressed, met around the dinner table; dinner, generally eaten at noon, was delayed until 2:00 on Sundays (with) the men always present except in large cities, where the distance of the business areas from residential areas was beginning to prevent them from coming home at noon; supper was at 5 or 6 o'clock."

The next source I will use actually comes from a diary from 1859. You can't get a better source than that:
The Cormany Diaries. I have mentioned this book numerous times in my writings for I have found little better than this for its first-hand accounts of everyday life during the mid to late 19th century:
(Rachel Cormany, speaking of her husband Samuel - spelling and phrasing intact)
"April 26, 1862
Saturday
This has been rather a sad day for me. My Sml. is has another attack of dyptheria. Yesterday morn. when he awakened his throat was sore. still he went out to the sugar bush & worked hard all day & did not take time to attend himself. he ate no breakfast, but ate dinner & supper."

Dinner - the noontime meal and the biggest meal of the day
Another book I own called Expansion of Everyday Life 1860-1876, which is along the lines of the first book I have listed here, says this:
"Whether attending to daily or seasonal chores, most housekeepers interrupted their workday between noon and one o'clock to welcome their families home to dinner. Children, when possible, came home from school. Fathers, unless working a considerable distance away, also joined the family circle. Dinner was the principal meal of the day, a time for families to relax and converse, though the tradition seemed to be dying in large cities by the 1870's. 
The family dinner at midday and the evening tea of inland towns at which parents and children gather about the tables and learn to know one another through the interests and feelings of every day..."

From a neat little book written by a former 1st person presenter at Greenfield Village's Eagle Tavern, Bert G Osterberg, about tavern life during the mid-19th century called Silas Cully's Tavern Tales also gives credibility to the dinner/supper dilemma (written in his 1st person manner):
Dining at the Eagle Tavern
"Now, as for your meals. Your fifty-cents will get you two meals and a place in the bed. You can have dinner and supper, or supper and breakfast. Your choice. Dinner's being served soon, the big meal of the day.Supper's later - usually leftovers from the dinner. At home most women just put doilies over the dinner food to keep the flies off and leave it on the table for supper. Here, we'll scrape the leftovers onto platters and you can help yourself at supper."

History Magazine (from the October/November 2001 issue) gives one of the clearest reasons that I have been able to find on the eating habits of the 19th century:
"Today many people find it strange that the biggest meal of the day once centered around noon, but it made great sense at the time. Artificial lighting such as oil lamps and candles were expensive, and provided weak illumination at best. So People went to sleep at sundown, because it's difficult to work and eat in the dark. The last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the sunlight went out. Only the extremely wealthy had candles to burn (in large supply) and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down or shortly after.
The English knew the last meal of the day as supper, and it was a light repast, usually made of cold leftovers from dinner."
That same article also speaks of lunch:
"Luncheon, as a regular daily meal, only developed in the U.S. in the 1900's. In the 1945 edition of Etiquette (magazine), Emily Post still referred to luncheon as generally given by and for women, but it is not unusual, especially in summer places or in town on Saturday or Sunday, to include an equal number of men."

As some folks had also mentioned, in many cases it could also be a regional thing. And I do agree with that. But it does seem that most regions tended to follow suit with the rest of the country in this case, for the quotes listed are from a variety of area including Michigan, New England, the south, and the general mid-west.
On a personal note, my own great great grandmother, Linnie Raby, commented to her grandson Bud Monterosso (who told told me during one of our many family history talks) that when she was still living in England (Northamptonshire) she referred to the midday meal as dinner and the evening meal as supper. But, when her father took his midday meal in a sack out to the field (he was a farmer) he called it a lunch.
Hmmm...
Anyhow, I certainly hope you found this little bit of information not only informative but also a fun fact to share and amaze your co-living historians with.










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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Christmas Dreaming A Little Early

It's the first week of November. You know what that means...
Yep! Time for Ken to put up his Dept. 56 Dickens "Christmas Carol" Village.
 
I know there are plenty of angry people out there who want to tell me to stick my Dickens Village where the sun doesn't shine.
"It's not even Thanksgiving!" they'll tell me. "Why must you put up Christmas decorations so early??"
To really tick them off I'll tell them that I listened to Christmas carols as I worked on it!
Heh heh...I really did.
I've always put my Dickens Village up a few days following Hallowe'en and have done so for over twenty years. And people actually get angry at me for doing so. Seriously angry. Like it's doing them harm or something.
And I just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

The ceramic lighted house decorations add a little bit of color and brightness to the otherwise gray November days. If you research your Christmas (and pre-Christmas) history, folks from times past would do whatever they could to brighten and liven up their wintertime darkened homes. Driving away the drab and dreariness of the cold sun-starved months was one of the reasons greenery such as holly and pine boughs were brought into the homes. It was a reminder of the springtime to come now that the winter solstice was upon them and the days would soon become noticeably longer.
Drab, dreary days indeed - so far in this 1st week of November it has been one part sun to five parts clouds with more of the same on the way.
So why not, then, bring some cheeriness into the home? And for me, there is little more cheerier than that most festive of all holidays, Christmas.

Notice the photos interspersed throughout this posting - I thought I would share just a couple of my photos from this year's Dickens Village set up. As I said, it's not nearly as elaborate as last year's (click HERE to see that) and I'm only using a dozen or so houses with a few of the key "Christmas Carol" figurines. I thought that since I only have room for a chosen few I would keep it strictly 'by the book' so-to-speak...Dickens' book.
And for the rest of our Christmas decorations, they go up directly after Thanksgiving. In fact, a few years ago I wrote of a typical Thanksgiving weekend that doesn't change much for us year to year. (Click HERE to read about it.)

On that first "official" weekend of the Christmas season we still visit Greenfield Village (sometimes dressed in our period winter clothing), cut down our tree and decorate it, and sometimes head to the Holly Dickens Festival, Crossroads Village, or even just stay home and watch one of the many versions of "A Christmas Carol" that I own.
My Dickens Village is one of those little pleasures I have that just gets me into the spirit of Christmas. I also have a Dept. 56 set for Hallowe'en (Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a few other assorted haunted houses) that I put up in October as well as the Colonial Williamsburg collection, which I just began to collect and plan to keep up year round since it is pretty historically accurate in showing colonial American history (click HERE for more on my Colonial Williamsburg set).
So, with that I will wish you an early Merry Christmas.





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