Tuesday, November 5, 2013

All You Have To Do Is Ask: Having an 1860's Christmas Celebration

I know that what I am going to post about here may seem a bit early. After all, it's only the beginning of November as I write this, but bear with me here.
Every year I write about the various 1860's Christmas events I participate in, and every year I get e-mails or comments about how people wish they could take part in such wonderful period Christmas celebrations.
Well, I'm going to tell you how to do it!
Yes! And it's a lot easier than you may think.
But, you better start getting it together now before time slips by you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Many reenactors who live in the cold northern portion of these great United States assume that the reenacting season is over once the the cold weather hits.
It doesn't have to be that way, especially for those of us who enjoy the Holiday Season. There are numerous opportunities to enjoy dressing in period clothing and bringing the glory of Christmas past back to life - and it may not be too late for you if you act now!
You see, the idea - this want -  of an old-fashioned Christmas has been with me since I was a little kid. Seriously, while still in my single digit age.
Now every December I have multiple chances to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century and I'm often asked how was I able to get involved in such historical-type celebrations. Well I'm here to tell you just how I did it:
I asked.
That's it.
It was as simple as asking.
For instance, for a few years at the Waterloo Farms Museum, they held a living history event there during the summer. It wasn't a big reenactment with a battle or anything. It was just a smaller, more personal living history event. Waterloo is a wonderful spot to bring history to life, for there is a mid-19th century farmhouse that is filled with accurate period furnishings that give the homestead a very authentic feel. And the good people who run the place trusted us enough to utilize the inside and make it "our home."
That's when I heard about their Christmas on the Farm event, and the idea of having a chance to actually participate in a rural 19th century Christmas was my dream come true! So...I asked - just asked - if they would like to have a few of us become a farm family and show a 19th century Christmas celebration during their event. They loved the idea. That was in 2010 and those of us that took part had a truly magical time - "a Christmas card come to life!"
The Waterloo Farm House Museum in Waterloo, Michigan.
Mrs. Cook helps my wife with her yarn for crocheting.

Living history at Waterloo is like being in a Christmas card
 Click the links below to hear this pump organ:

Doesn't this just give you a feeling of "being there"?
Yep - we've been back nearly every year since!

The year previous - 2009 - I participated in my first Christmas at the Fort at Historic Fort Wayne in downtown Detroit. This was where a few of us formed a family from the 1860's and donned our Sunday-best period clothing and brought Christmas past to life for a few hundred tourists. These visitors were put into several tour groups and then followed their guides to different areas on the expansive grounds on the site; beside the house we were in, they also visited the barracks where Civil War soldier reenactors were participating in the same activities their 1860's counterparts would have done a hundred and fifty years ago.
This Christmas at the Fort event began a year earlier, and when I heard about it I asked if I could take part. The answer was "yes!" and we're still doing it. I now pretty much oversee the civilians for this event.
Again...I just asked!
Larissa entertained all on the pump organ while playing Christmas carols during our homelife scenario at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit.

Decorating the feather tree
Click the three pictures below here to listen in as the tree is decorated in the 1860s:

This really brings it all home...home in the middle 19th century...doesn't it?
Just every day folk enjoying this special holiday in the past.

Christmas eve: the house is ready for friends to come visiting. The group of us that do Christmas at the Fort have worked out a family scenario and try to stay in an immersion manner. A very limited amount of living historians are accepted to keep it realistic.

During Christmas dinner we kept our conversations period correct, and spoke of our lives in the 1860's as well as our youths in the 1820s and '30's. It was an amazing experience!
And the best part is, we get into an immersion mode here - - - where we actually are 'there.'  Click here to see how we did it.

We are very lucky to have the internationally known open air museum, Greenfield Village, in close proximity to where we live here in Michigan, and every year, usually on 'Black Friday' - that horrid day-after-Thanksgiving-media-blitzed shopping day - a few of us will put on our period clothing and visit this historical place where the homes, by this time, are usually decked out festively for the Christmas season. No, we can't actively participate in the activities, but to be surrounded by all of that history while wearing clothing of the mid-19rh century still gives one that very same feeling as 'being there.' Plus, we know the docents well and they always make us feel 'right at home.'
Then there is the opportunity to eat a meal right out of an 1850's cookbook in the 1832 Eagle Tavern.
Oh yeah, it's a fine day indeed.
Again, I asked others if they wanted to join me in this little made up time-travel excursion. Sometimes I might only get one or two, while other times I'll get a dozen to come along. Heck! even if nobody responded I would still do it on my own!
Enjoying an afternoon in the Firestone Farm sitting room. This is nothing official - just a few living historians enjoying a festive day in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

A carriage ride through Greenfield Village is always fun.

Enjoying a warm by the fire on a cold day during Christmastide.

 And we never visit Greenfield Village's amazing Holiday Nights in modern clothing!
Oh! I believe Ken would like that leather dispatch case over there!

We've also journeyed to Crossroads Village, another (semi) local open-air museum, and have, of course, dressed in our period clothing to do so.
We had a pretty large group of us visit Crossroads Village open-air museum in Flint, Michigan the few times we've gone there.

We also have the Plymouth Historical Museum, an actual indoor museum, and last year they had a Dickens of a Christmas.
This time I was asked to take part!
I tried a more Dickensian flavor for the Plymouth, Michigan Museum's Christmas event
I did, and even though the building itself isn't historical, there were others dressed in period clothing amongst the historical artifacts and displays, therefore giving off a very period flavor.

And one year we did Christmas at Crocker House, held at the 1869 Crocker House Museum in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. This idea came about while driving home from Waterloo. I wanted to do more than what I was for Christmas, so I gave the director of the museum a call to ask if she would be interested in having a few of us bring her museum house to life for the holidays. She responded enthusiastically, and, well, guess what we did that December?
Did you catch how I did it?
Yup - I asked.
That's all it took.
And here we are:
The children play near the Christmas tree in the Crocker House Museum in Mt. Clemens, Michigan.

The mistress of the Crocker house scans her receipt book to direct the domestic servants on what to prepare for Christmas dinner.

Yes, our Christmas meal is about to be served!
It was a fine time indeed!

The Civil War unit I belong to, the 21st Michigan, has a period Christmas party every year, and it's held in an 1872 school house.
Now, I've heard that most other groups have modern day parties and I have to ask "why?" I mean, we are reenactors, and we're supposed to enjoy this hobby. What better time to bring the past to life than at a members only Christmas party?
Not only do we enjoy fine period food...
...but we also have a Christmas dance.
Sometimes there may be a fiddler, other times we will just clap out a beat.
Either way, this is a great time!

We will also play parlor games.
Oh what fun we all have - I like to think we do our ancestors proud!

My advice to you, if this is something you'd like to be a part of is don't wait for something to come up or someone else to put an event together. You do it - it's not hard at all.
And all you have to do is ask.
So...what are you waiting for? Go ask - even if it's visiting a local museum in period clothing.
One last thing: how about hosting an event in your own home? It's easy! You can remove or cover the breakables (and ultra-modern items) from your living room, basement or wherever the gathering is held and replace them with your reenacting furniture. Then light your oil lamps and/or candles, and you can then have a make-shift period area right there in your house. Invite a few of your friends that love participating in living history and plan an evening of traditional carols, parlor games, and even period decorating. It's really not that much work to do this - we do it every year, and I've had people tell me, "This is Christmas."
A Christmas gathering at our home - the room here is solely lit by oil lamps and candles, and that gives a very period feel. I suppose our furniture and accessories help a little, too, including the traditional feather tree.
Very period in a modern house

Another Christmas gathering at our home, and the room again is lit by oil lamps and candles. We didn't have our feather tree when this photo was taken.

Again - what're you waiting for? Get a move on and start the planning, not only for this December, but for future Christmas pasts. It's never too early.
You won't regret it.
And you'll (yule?) be surprised at how this can change your outlook about Christmas.

I've had at least a dozen people ask me today alone for a list of books that have helped me to recreate a period Christmas.
Here you go:

Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" - He's the one who did more to help us celebrate Christmas in the way we do than anyone. His descriptions are great. Get the annotated version by Michael Patrick Hearn to help you to fully understand.
"Inventing Christmas" by Jock Elliott gives a fine history of the holiday.
"Dickens Christmas: A Victorian Celebration" by Simon Callow explains the hows and whys of Dickens writing A Christmas Carol.
"We Were Marching On Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War" by Kevin Rawlings gives great depictions of Christmas in both the north and the south during the Civil War.
"The Civil War Christmas Album" by Philip Van Doren Stern is a book filled with original stories and poems taken directly from the magazines and newspapers of the times. 

Also, here are a few links of some of my time travel Christmas excursions:
Christmas Celebrations 1862: Country and City - Waterloo Farm and Historic Fort Wayne
Christmas at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit
Journey Through Christmas Past 2012
Christmas at Waterloo Farm 1861

By the way, contrary to popular beliefs and Facebook memes, the colonials also celebrated Christmas. No, not everyone, but a great many did.
Click HERE to read about how they did it (loads of cool pictures).



silvermedusa said...

For a while I have just discovered your Blog and I really like it. It´s a wonderful thing to meet so many people who are also interested in living history like me.

Warmest regards from Germany
from Mrs Thilda

Autumn Forsberg said...

Thanks for this inspiring post! Can you post some book suggestions for Victorian Christmas ideas? I'm inspired by your blog to host a Victorian Christmas party. I'd also like to try asking our local outdoor living history museum if they could use a few enthusiastic CW reenactors over the holidays. Do you have some suggestions for what exactly we might do?

Autumn Forsberg said...

Thank you for the inspiring post! Can you suggest some books/resources with Victorian Christmas ideas? Also, I'm inspired by your blog to try asking our local outdoor history museum if they could use a few enthusiastic CW reenactors, but I'm not sure exactly what we could do. Any suggestions?

Historical Ken said...

Good idea Autumn - I added a book list at the end of the post.

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken,
As always, I love it! I take in every detail of every photo!!

Historical Ken said...

I received one of the kindest e-mails ever:
Dear Ken,

I wanted to write to you again and let you know the result of having read your blog post "All You Have To Do Is Ask." My friend and fellow reeanctor Sgt Rufus Lawless and I did as you suggested: we asked a local historical society that had planned a Christmas Parlour Tour if they would like a group to inhabit their historical museum to bring to life a Victorian Christmas. They said yes! We did this last weekend, and I wanted to show you the results.

I've posted a description of our day and photos on my blog, Boots Before Corset.

We all wanted to thank you so much for inspiring us to this activity! It was really fun and we can't wait to do another. I think the public enjoyed the day as well. I find the ideas in your blog so intriguing, and am eager to instigate more off-season activities. I look forward to reading more!

We had hoped to remain in first-person for most of the day, but it proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated. The historical society had already planned their parlour tour, and it was too late to advertise our presence, so visitors weren't prepared for our "Christmas in Atlanta, 1863" scenario. (We hung up a sign to orient them, but the historical ladies placed a wreath over it!) We're discussing now what we can improve the next time, and I'd love to hear your suggestions for how to maintain the 1860's atmosphere. However, we all had a wonderful time and the day was a roaring success!

Thank you again for your part in making it happen.


Abigail Kirkland

Unknown said...

Great blog and wonderful post. Too true! All you have to do is ask. Because I asked, this year I'll be taking my pony and sleigh to transport Father Christmas on his rounds, enhancing the annual Holly Days celebration at Heritage Village Museum in Sharon Woods Park outside Cincinnati, OH. Local Living History Ladies and various military groups will also be on hand for this vintage celebration which is open to the public December 10 and 11, 2016. Tis the season!
Joy A. Fowler