Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Spirits of Christmas Past

As the days of December grow dark, I continue to find myself immersed in the 19th century; you may recall that besides my reenacting unit (the 21st Michigan), I also head up the period vocal group Simply Dickens, and between the two I seem to be in my period attire more than my modern clothing.
In fact, there is not a busier time-travel month for me: 11 out of the 31 days in December, I am in 19th century fashions. That's nearly half the month!
And I am lovin' it!
The posting directly before this one (Christmas 2013: An Immersion Experience) tells of what is perhaps my favorite of all my Christmas time-travel journeys.
But that doesn't mean there aren't others that I don't enjoy as well. For instance, the day after the Historic Fort Wayne event, nearly a dozen of us from the 21st Michigan found our way to the City of Mt. Clemens (about 20 miles north from where the Fort sits in downtown Detroit - a two-day carriage ride with a stop-over in Erin Township) to a beautiful Italianate home built in 1869 known as the Crocker House Museum.

The 21st Michigan participants stand on the porch of this beautiful Italianate house built in 1869 now known as the Crocker House Museum.

My good friend Kim Parr runs this historic place, and besides being the director here, Kim is a 19th century mourning historian, women's undergarment historian, and former reenactor.
And she sings with Simply Dickens!
2013 was the first year for this "Spirits of Christmas Past" event and we had a pretty good amount of willing participants to help bring the past to life. As in Christmas at the Fort, we portrayed a family of the 1860's, the difference here at Crocker House being we didn't have the freedom to make the house "ours" as we usually enjoy doing, therefore squelching the possibilities of immersion.
No matter, we still had a fine time and did scenarios for the visitors instead:

Larissa, once again portraying my wife, readies herself for the Christmas Day festivities.

Yes, and she helps me get ready as well...

Susan sews a garment with which she plans to give as a gift.

Carolyn is also never at a loss for things to do, and is enjoying a quiet moment before the excitement of visiting Christmas travelers begins.

Our domestic servants: Candace and Agnes

Candace mends her mistress' clothing

Agnes makes sugarplums for a Christmas treat.
My daughter works on Christmas gifts for family and friends

Larissa plays carols on the pump organ while my daughter and I finish decorating the tree.

Jackie surveys the table setting, ensuring the servants did their job as they were supposed to.

Here's an interesting Victorian custom: After Christmas dinner, everyone gets a chance to break a piece off of a sugar and peppermint flavor candy pig as it is passed around the table, with each person in the family getting a piece. It will bring luck for the coming year to those who eat it. It's a tradition of reflection of the year past and hope for good fortune for the year ahead.
Thank you, Rebecca Goodenow, for the 'pig" information.

A close-up of the "family"

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 As I wrote about in a previous post, Simply Dickens is a period vocal group that specializes in old world carols such as The Boar's Head Carol, The Gloucestershire Wassail, The Huron Indian Carol, All You That Are Good Fellows, the original 1857 four-verse version of One Horse Open Sleigh (eventually becoming known as Jingle Bells), Masters in This Hall, the Holly and the Ivy, and the list goes on. You won't hear songs about Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, or Hippopotamuses, for these were from the mid-20th century.
Our criteria is that the carols must be pre-1900's.
Being that we perform these wonderful all-but-forgotten Christmas songs from days of old, we dress the part. Well, we dress mid-19th century - we'd have to have many different sets of clothing and numerous costume changes during our performances if we were to dress the correct era for each song!
We perform throughout the metro-Detroit area, whether it's on a modern stage in a hall, on the streets at a Dickens Festival, or in an old school house for a historical society.
This year we had a very unique experience in performing inside a church that was built in 1845 inside a small historic open air museum called Mill Race Village in Northville, Michigan.
Talk about wonderful acoustics! The sounds resonated off the old walls of that building, helping to give off that old-time sound we look for.
On this particular day we were there at Mill Race we happened to get slammed by a good-size snowstorm that dumped over seven inches of the white stuff by night's end.
And Mill Race never looked more beautiful!

Simply Dickens, purveyors of old world Christmas music, stand in front of the 1831 Cady Inn Tavern. All smiles - none forced!
Off to the church to sing for a packed house.
After the performance we roamed about Mill Race Village; due to the snowy Christmastime weather, it "nearly was like a picture print by Currier & Ives...".

Yes, it was cold. Yes, we got a lot of snow. But, you know what? I loved every second of it. I've never experienced snow in quite this manner before. It was wonderful.

This was one of those magical experiences that do not come very often for living historians. And to think that if Simply Dickens did not have a performance here on this day, I would have been back in my 1944 home in my t-shirt and jeans, probably on the computer or watching television, which means I would have missed out on this rare wintertime encounter with the past.

Ah, what a bitter day! Great guns of wind went booming down the street, hustling round the corners, and spending their furry upon the naked tree tops. All through the day had that strife gone on until dusk began while the heavens hung out their flag of truce in the shape of a heavy snow all ready against the morrow-for it was Christmas Eve, and what would a Christmas Day be without snow-balls?

No amount of snow or cold could hinder the excitement we held on this day. It, instead, was a welcome accessory to our Christmas travels and only added to the festivities of our day.

A thorn betwixt two roses~
  (By the way, type in Simply Dickens while on Facebook and join our group page!)

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Every year, virtually without fail, I visit the spectacular Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village. In fact, now that Simply Dickens performs there, I am a part of this amazing Americana Christmas at least a half dozen times during the month of December.
And I also visit this special event on my own when the group is not performing.
Yep - call me crazy.
I've written before about Holiday Nights HERE and HERE, so here's no need for deep description, but I will say that the Village really does bring Christmas past to life...300 years of Christmas past!
Once again I'll let the photos, which were taken the same date as those from Mill Race (December 14, 2013), do most of the talking. though there aren't as many as I would like. Simply Dickens was performing so there wasn't as much time to walk around, though during our breaks I did scurry about and took a few! I hope you enjoy what I have here:

This is what greeted us as we entered the Village at the Eagle Tavern gate. Almost like a Christmas card.
As we moved about the "town" area of Greenfield Village, we were walking in a winter wonderland. This photo was taken by my friend Lee Cagle, the "unofficial" photographer of Greenfield Village.

Simply Dickens sang right there in the snow in front of the Greenfield Village Liberty Craftworks store. It was cold, it was snowy, but the festive atmosphere that surrounded us helped to keep us warm.
In fact, we even met a few visitors from India who had never seen snow or felt the cold before. These adult men and women were acting like children – throwing snow balls, sliding, and kicking snow up at one another. It was great! They asked us to sing “Jingle bells” and we obliged. Yep – they sang along, accents and all.
We loved it!

A serene scene right out of 1760 New England of this Connecticut Saltbox House. Except it wasn't as serene as you might think. This photograph was taken without flash, thus a slower shutter speed...

Here is the same picture, only with my flash on, and this is closer to what I was actually seeing. Yep - it was snowing like the Dickens out there!

“If the only light and heat comes from candles and fireplaces because of a power outage at your house, it is frustrating and annoying - but when it comes in the form of intimate tours of an 18th or 19th- century village, it is charming and peaceful.”

It was definitely more peaceful inside. Cozy and warm without actually being warm; colonial homes were far from warm in 1760!
And you can forget about the Hollywood history movies showing people enjoying a pleasant winter's eve reading by candlelight or oil lamp - I've tried and it's pretty darn difficult to do for any length of time. As Laura Wirt wrote in 1818, "writing by a dim firelight. I can scarcely see."

The Smiths Creek Depot, built in the late 1850's, was also the home to the station master and his family. It looks like they are ready for Christmas Day to arrive!

Christmas travelers inside Smiths Creek Depot waiting for the train to come in. And we certainly felt like travelers, for we had been on the road this entire snow-filled day, performing all over metro-Detroit. A train ride home would have been a very welcome respite from driving the carriage "through white and drifting snow."

The past come to life - the magic of a museum: what we see and what the visitors of the future see.
That's my wife, Patty, there in the sepia portion of this photo. My actual wife.
Yes, she reenacts, but not nearly as often as I'd like. And I so very much appreciate her allowing the portrayal that Larissa and I do when she's not there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Where many reenactors have moth-balled their period clothing until the warmth of late May, there are those few (like me) who keep the past alive throughout the year. To us, it's worth the extra money to have period-correct winter clothing which allows us to enjoy this hobby in all of the four seasons. It really does give one a better insight to what our ancestors may have experienced, therefore allowing us to have a kind of first-hand experience, which can only help our historical presentations.
And, well, I must admit - - - reenacting Christmas past is every bit as good as any of the summer reenactments.
Maybe better!
Until next time, good tidings to you and your kin.


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