Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas 2013: An Immersion Experience

Original winter sleigh ride photo courtesy of Jenna Theissen

"These are but shadows of the things that have been," said the Ghost. "They have no consciousness of us."
(The Ghost of Christmas Past speaking to Scrooge in Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol.')

This was the home where we visited for Christmas.

This is what we attempted to do at the annual Christmas at the Fort event this season - bring Christmas past to life. Not only for the visitors who paid to come and see us, for but ourselves.
This whole immersion thing has been building up for us for a while now, and with each passing year those of us who enjoy this sort of reenacting are finding ourselves creeping closer to getting "there" - - you know...there...in the past...literally as close as one can be without actually traveling through time---making that extreme effort to live up to the name "living historian."
And this year we took another rather large leap in that direction.

We're here!
Yes, we truly did make our strongest effort yet.
It's been my goal to increase the 'intensity' of the living history experience and to expand it beyond anything we've done before - to have as close to a time-travel /you-are-there experience as any mortal human could have. So as the Christmas season approached, I gathered the people I knew who could pull this off, and, after finding who was on board, I sent an e-mail explaining our plans

Good day to Everyone -
As you know, we plan to go (as best as we can) into a  full immersion for this event, which means no 'coming out' into the 21st century during the duration. Three people will be 'stepping' into the future during the touring group visits: Sandy, Larissa, and Ken will be taking turns speaking to the tour groups when they come into the house. Everyone else will be totally oblivious to the modern folk. They are not even there as far as you're concerned.
We are also looking for everyone to plan something for our Christmas Eve entertainment:  Singing Christmas carols, read a poem, pantomime something, have a parlor game ready for us to play.
Something else along these lines: we are family in Sandy's home - conversation on our 1860's lives is a must. Please come up with something about your life you can speak casually on during conversations.
And crafts: sewing, knitting, crocheting, and sketching. Also, writing letters or in your journal.
Remember etiquette. Remember how we are to address one another and how we are to act. But we have our own personalities as well - we don't want Hollywood History. If you're a jokester in the 21st century, then you would most likely be in the 19th century, just on a different level.
We will be eating in the dining room - - this is a first and we must be as careful as can be here. They are allowing me to bring my two 1880's oil lamps for light in there - again, we must use extreme caution.
I am letting the other reenactors know what we're doing so no one comes in and breaks the mode.
We are really going to make the attempt to make this as real as can possibly be done. We have the best of the best here - - we have those who can do this right.
Please respond to "all" in this e-mail so we can all remain on the same page.
Thank you everyone - - -

My 1863 extended "family."

Each of us who participated had a role...a back-story, if you will. Not a character, not a script, but a life story, just as we have in our modern lives. For instance, in my 21st century life I am the youngest of my parent's five children, married to a wonderful woman named Patty, and she & I have four children of our own.
However, in my 1863 family, I have an older and a younger sister, a different wife who's name is Elizabeth, and two daughters, one of which is portrayed by my real life daughter.
(Patty prefers not to do full immersion. She doesn't mind it but it is not one of her favorite things to do, so she gave me her approval to have a 'reenacting wife' for certain events, including Christmas at the Fort, and Larissa/"Elizabeth" has been a kind willing participant in this. She, too, has an awesome husband in her real 21st century life).
 So, Elizabeth is my second wife and mother to our youngest daughter. My first wife died during the birth of my eldest child, Christine. We live on a farm in rural Erin Township, Michigan, quite a distance from both of my sisters, so we don't visit very often except on special occasions such as Christmas.
My 1863 immediate "family" (and mother-in-law!)

This reenacting family that we put together is well defined: My eldest sister, Carolyn, married well and lives in Plymouth, Michigan. My younger sister, Sarah, also married well and lives in Detroit. In fact, that's "her" home pictured at the top of this posting in which we were celebrating, and she employs two house servants, Agnes and Candace, to help her run it.

My "sister" Carolyn," her "husband" David, and their "daughter" Andrea.

When we do visit, we enjoy the camaraderie of each others company. We speak of current affairs as well as times past in our own history.
And our daughters enjoy seeing their cousin (Carolyn's daughter) Andrea from Plymouth as well.
We made quite a family.

All participants brought accessories to help make this house our own festive Christmas home, giving it a very elegant look for Christmas Eve and Day 1863.

Our daughters and their cousin

Now, the way this whole Christmas at the Fort works is that multiple guided tour groups come around every 15 minutes or so and will stand in the doorways of the various rooms to peak in and see an 1860's Christmas Eve in action. While they did this, one from our group would quietly get up from our activity and move over to where the visitors were and speak of how Christmas was celebrated in our time one hundred and fifty years ago. The other living historians continued to read, sing, knit, sew, crochet, play games, string popcorn and decorate the feather tree, or whatever other frivolity they may had been involved with and were oblivious to the apparitions from the future. To paraphrase the Dickens quote above, we had no consciousness of them.
The girl cousins all enjoy making Christmas gifts

And then, when our presenter had finished their talk, they re-joined our group and continued as if they had never left. The visitors, nearly 300 in total throughout the evening, were not allowed to roam throughout the home or speak to the other various living historians. Except for the chosen presenter, the living historians did not even acknowledge the 21st century tour groups. 

My youngest decorated the feather tree with strung popcorn.

The best part of all of this was we never broke our immersion after the modern tourists had left the house; we continued on as if we truly were a family from the 1860's. 
In all actuality (and in my opinion), I believe, for that time, we really were family back in 1863.  

What this meant for the modern tour groups coming through was that there was always something different going on at any given time: the first set of visitors saw our 1860's family decking the halls.

The second group saw a discussion between my older sister Carolyn and my wife & I on the possibility of sending our eldest and slightly out of control daughter to a girls seminary school.
The third group may have heard an intense political discussion between my brother-in-law David and I. Even my wife, who I support in expressing her knowledgeable opinions, joined in the conversation, much to the chagrin of my older sister. The eldest of my siblings does not believe a woman should discuss such matters.
A later group heard us attempt to sing Christmas Carols to the pump organ, while others still heard a reading from Dickens novel "A Christmas Carol."
And I haven't even brought up playing checkers or writing letters or hearing jokes from Harper's Weekly or...well, you get the idea.

Sister Carolyn and mother-in-law (Mrs. Parkhill) sing and play carols for the enjoyment of the rest of us.

All as natural as us being a real family of the time - - - - there were no stage calls of "Places everyone: here comes the next group!" 
No lines to be studied, for we wouldn't study lines in our real lives, now, would we?
No breaking the immersion spell, whether the modern visitors were there or not.
Nope - except for one or two very minor blips, we stayed back there.

Sister Sarah decorates the outside porch of her home.
But something special happened this year that no one has been able to do in over 30 years: we got to eat in the dining room...and we got to eat by oil lamp! It was brought up how we could expand our impression to make it more real than in previous years, and when the idea came up of eating a Christmas meal in the dining I didn't expect the coalition to agree to it.
But we have proven to them over the years that we are historical professionals in all we do, and because of that we got the thumbs up.

The beautifully lit dining room with authentic antique oil lamps for light

I must say, this was, perhaps, one of the most magical experiences I've ever had in my reenacting journey. Imagine the opportunity of eating a Christmas meal with only oil lamps for light inside of an actual dining room of the time.
After a beautifully worded prayer of "thanks" given by David to our Lord for the bountiful meal, we made a gallant attempt to keep our dinner conversations centered around topics on what we would have discussed as an 1863 family. For instance, I asked sister Carolyn if she remembered the days of our youth before oil lamps when we had to dip tallow candles, and she replied with the memory of how awful they smelled. Though Sarah is younger, she remembered those days as well.

Yes, we had the servant girls there, serving us and waiting on our every need.

We also spoke of the rush lamp that our mother brought over with her from England, of which I still have in my possession.
And we spoke of a possible 4th of July gathering, though it would be tough for Elizabeth and I to get away from the farm during that time of year.
To top it off, we had my sister's two servant girls there for our every need.
As you can see, between our conversations and the style and manner in which we carried ourselves, we were well-rooted in the 1860's, and those of us taking part seem to agree that the dining room portion of the evening was the most magical of nearly anything we've ever done.
It really was.

This truly was a magical experience for each of us in that room. It felt like we were actually having a Christmas meal in the year 1863.

Another moment in time captured by the stealth camera

Sisters: "We are but shadows of the things that had been..." The glorious look of a non-electric light evening.

I was told that some of the people in the tour groups who came through to witness the shadows of the things that have been left in tears at the beauty and authenticity of our presentation. 
But we weren't the only ones! The visitors were quite taken with the presentations in some of the other houses on the tour as well, including visiting the Fort grounds where they were able to meet President and Mrs. Lincoln and hear him recount the successes of 1863, and then to the Officers Mess where Union Officers had their dinner while visitors listened to them discuss their views on the War, and to the barracks to see how the enlisted men of the Union army spent their Christmas.
They were also taken to a southern refugee family's home to see how the war, at this point, had devastated so many in the south, as well as to a Confederate soldier's camp.
And at another stop, the tour group were able to see a private citizen's home that was turned into a hospital and to witness first-hand the wounded men being cared for inside.
(Our house was somewhere in the middle of this pretty extensive tour.)
So as you can see, for the Civil War buff, this is a Christmas dream come true, isn't it? 
For us it was magical.

Now, how did we get all of these photographs?
Well, sneaky person that I am, we all arrived early enough to spend time posing in various scenarios before the immersion was to begin, and between myself and my "eldest daughter" Kristen ("Christine"), we were able to get a few good shots beforehand.
There was also Ian Kushnir, who is one of the Fort's assigned photographers, and he was on hand taking photos during immersion time. He was respectfully unobtrusive, plus we also learned to block modern-isms out.
So what you see here are a mixture from all three. 
The following are a few more of the photos (amongst hundreds) taken during this special Christmas presentation to better help with the visualization of our event.
My "sister" Carolyn and her "husband" David.

A 'colorized' family photo (or, as I like to say, "this is how we see ourselves while the future will see us in sepia.")

Our daughters

A rousing game of checkers

My "mother-in-law" certainly enjoys playing the pump organ!

Decking the Halls became a family affair.
My eldest "daughter," Christine, with my hat and her uncle's pipe, put on a little Christmas frivolity for her family. Yes, I joined in, as you shall see shortly.
Idle hands are the devil's workshop - these girls were not idle on the afternoon of the day before Christmas.

I spent some quiet time writing in my journal while the women sewed items for our men fighting in the war effort.

Another family photo.

Candace and Agnes were kept busy in the kitchen preparing our meal. And they really did work, too - the entire time we were there they served us. Not to worry, we have something planned to thank them for all of their labor.



We took the time for one last posed photo, and what better place than the dining room.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Elsewhere on the grounds, the tour groups were treated to a variety of Christmas 1863 celebrations, as the following photos show.
("The Fort," by the way, is Historic Fort Wayne in downtown Detroit - an actual fort built in the 1840's and was used from its construction through the Viet Nam War era. It stands in the midst of restoration today due to the efforts of so many, especially those in the Fort Wayne Coalition. It is being restored one structure at a time).

President and Mrs. Lincoln visited the men in the barracks and took some time to study a bible lesson.

A soldier entertains his pards with Christmas music played on his fife.

Things looked mighty barren and grim in this southern refugee house. But the ladies kept their spirits high for the season.

Some of the wounded men who were being cared for inside the house-turned-hospital take in some fresh air.

A wounded soldier convalesces inside the house hospital.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~
And, yes, before and after we did take a few goof off shots:

Kristen ("Christine") decided to eat the popcorn as she removed it from the tree.

And yet there was still plenty of popcorn left in the bowl!

I married Elizabeth in hopes she would raise her step-daughter in a proper way. Well, as they say...like mother, like step-daughter!

Um...well, I suppose the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree! Hey! That winter bonnet doesn't look too bad, now, does it?

I hope you enjoyed this tour given by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Look back in this same spot for another Christmas time-travel excursion!



Ella said...

This is my idea of a good time Ken! You always have managed to challenge those of us who call ourselves living historians to a higher purpose. You are indeed wonderful Mr G and I am proud to call you my friend!

Historical Ken said...

Wow! Wow! Wow!
Thank you for the kind words!

Susan Gill said...

I love this idea and you all look so authentic. It is so obvious that your love of the past is a motivating factor in your presentations. Thank you for your devotion to all things 19th century!

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken,
As always I love your posts, and this one is no exception. Love that house and all the furnishings, AND the photos! What fun!
Have a blessed Christmas season.

An Historical Lady said...

Excellent, as always, Ken. So glad you are my friend! Wishing you and your family the most wonderful (period style!) Christmas!

Texas Mom said...

I truly enjoyed reading this, and looking at the pictures!

Historical Ken said...

I know I'm a bit late in writing this, but thank you everyone for your kind comments. We really love doing Christmas at the Fort and, believe it or not, are already planning for Christmas 2014!