Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas Past is No Longer in the Past: Christmas at the Fort 2016

I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
their old familiar carols play...
Going home for Christmas...
Elizabeth and I in our dining room.
I used to dream of having an old-fashioned Christmas, kind of like the ones I used to know. Well, okay, not quite like the ones I used to know. Most of the Christmas's I dreamed of came from books or TV shows. Oh, but I did dream of having one, and, lucky for me, this dream eventually became a reality. It took many attempts over the years, lots of research, and then hooking up with the right people, but it did come true, for it seems I was not the only one who had this longing for celebrating Christmas past.
And, for the past eight years, I've been experiencing first-hand the kind of old-fashioned Christmas I used to dream about - Christmas in the mid-19th century.
Christina, our daughter, poses for her 
annual Christmas Eve tin type.
Understand, please, that the living historians who partake in this excursion to the past just don't sit in the parlor and reenact. That would be too simple. We, instead, become a real family, with a husband, wife, daughter, sister/sister-in-law/aunt, mother/mother-in-law/grandmother, and house servant, and we play out our roles quite well, especially since we've been working in this capacity for nearly a half-dozen years. For the most part, our little family remains in a 1st person/immersion state and do our best to speak only of subjects in which we, as folks from 1861, would have been aware, whether of the War that we had hoped would have ended by harvest time, or of our homelife, including the raising of our daughter.
We keep it real.
Are we perfect?
No, not by any means.
But, we do our very best to continue improving ourselves on this time-travel journey and attempt to become more 'natural' each time.
What has really gives us satisfacrion is when we're told that we do a very realistic job in re-creating a Victorian household.
Yeah...that makes us smile. Ha! After all, in our minds it is 1861 - - - - 
I am very honored and humbled to have found living historians - people I consider to also be my close friends - who are so willing to immerse themselves in the past and bring it to life in such a manner as we do, as well as have an actual historic setting at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, and I thank God for bringing us all together for this amazing adventure through time.
My 1860s family
In days of old, the Christmas season, for most who lived here in the States, did not begin in late November and continue through the end of December as it does in our modern times. It, for the most part, lasted only a day or two: usually Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with maybe a little food preparation a few days before. And the celebration of this merry holiday was much more subdued in comparison to today unless one lived in a grand house with money to spend. But even the folks with less means observed Christmas with all the fervor they could muster. Yes, they most certainly did, but the celebrations were just more compressed. Families & friends gathered, ate large meals, drank ale, sang carols, danced, read stories - ghost stories! - exchanged gifts, and went to church. And by the middle of the 1800s, decorating Christmas trees became very popular.
All of this in a one or two day period.
This is what we replicate at Christmas at the Fort.
The conversations, for most of our time, centered on the themes of any home and family of the 1860s.

Our moment in time was documented, as were other historic "Fort" Christmas experiences, and I'd like to present here what occurred that day at Historic Fort Wayne.
So, are you ready for an 1861 Christmas celebration?
Well, then, away we go - - - !
Today is the day before Christmas and Elizabeth and I are preparing to entertain family and friends, so the house must shine for our guests. Candace, our domestic servant, does such a fine job in her duties!

Typical of the houses with domestics, off the kitchen was a
 "hidden" staircase leading to and from the servant's quarters

Candace, was pleased with the room we provided for her, though she missed her beloved husband.

The servant staircase looking down.

Daughter Christina has had a difficult time relating to her 
status in life. Our former servant girl, Agnes, had 
run off with a copperhead after we forbid her to 
go courting while under our employment. 
Agnes and Christina are very close in age 
and became fast friends and, thus, our daughter was 
upset that we treated the young girl in the strict manner
that we did. Christina must understand that we 
have our rules in the running of our home, and that 
young Agnes, who was of a much lower class, 
was lucky to have such a job that we had provided.

My "sister" and "mother-in-law" look over a memory
book of tin types taken of family no longer with us.

Even with heating stoves, there was still a chill in the air.

The history of Feather Trees being used at Christmas is really just one ornament in the continuing Christmas celebration at large. Feather trees became a matter of necessity in 19th century Germany. Christmas trees had been a tradition in Germany for hundreds of years, but de-forestation was becoming a problem and a new type of tree was needed and the feather tree was the solution to the problem.
Decorating the feather tree is always a highlight of the day.
The ladies certainly did a fine job decorating
our feather tree!
Tops of trees were cut off for the annual event which left the trees unable to grow and of no use for the timber industry.
The need for another form of tree was necessary. From this necessity, the feather tree was fashioned.
Goose, turkey, and swan feathers were a plentiful commodity on the farms and easily transformed into Christmas trees. Feathers were dyed green and wired to wooden sticks and then drilled into a dowel into the shape of a typical white pine German tree. Artificial red berries were attached onto the ends of some branches and wire candle holders adorned others. The branches were placed some distance apart so ornaments were easily hung and admired and lit candles would not burn other branches. Both round and square bases were used to secure the trees and early trees were all table-top size. Not until Americans really start to decorate was it common for trees to be placed on the floor.
The American market was first introduced to feather trees by German immigrants in Pennsylvania and Texas. These immigrants brought their trees and traditions across the oceans and opened up a much larger scale of Christmas celebrations here in America. In the later 1800’s the Woolworth Company started to import decorations and feather trees to the US market.
Today original feather trees are again popular to collect as their unique and historic value is appreciated.
(The above information about feather trees came from THIS site)
While the ladies put the baubles upon the tree, Violet
played "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" on the organ.
She played the organ as the tour groups came into the house. One young boy, about the age of ten (who begged his parents to bring him to this event), was very interested in history. As the music was heard, I asked him to watch...and listen...
I said to him, "Do you know what you are hearing?"
He looked at me but gave no response.
"You are hearing history. You are hearing something that would have been heard in many of the more well-to-do houses of the era - maybe even this very house we are in right now - and this is what you would have heard. Can you just imagine if these walls could talk the stories they could tell?"
He listened, and then he and his parents all gave me a big smile.
I continued, "History is more than what you read in books; to bring the past to life you must use all of your senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And right now you are using sight and sound."
They loved it!
We also read Christmas stories aloud to each other. Of course, for us it was Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol." This was the most popular Christmas tale of the time and was read in many a home on Christmas Eve, just like you see here.

Being that this was "Christmas at the Fort," it wasn't just about those of us in the '1860s house.'
Please allow me to give you a brief overview of some of the other stops and scenarios on the visitors tour of Christmas Past at this historic location, for Elizabeth and I took a few minutes to try and catch a glimpse of the others who were participating here.
Elizabeth freshens up upon returning from a visit.
One thing we discovered is that Christmas at the Fort is morphing into a sort of timeline event, and the tour begins with heroes of the American Revolution.
 A few members of George Washington's Continental Army set up camp. They spoke of the misery they felt at Valley Forge.
Washington tried to stem desertion by resorting to lashings as punishment and then threatening to shoot deserters on sight. For those soldiers who remained with him, Washington expressed deep gratitude and awe. He described men marching without clothes, blankets or shoes–leaving bloody trails in the snow–who displayed “patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralel’d.”
The winter at Valley Forge might have signaled the end of the American Revolution. Fortunately for the Continentals though, Washington did not give up.

Another stop on the tour was to see the Michigan boys who fought in the Civil War.
Here we see a few of the men of '61 spend their Christmas playing cards, catching up on the latest news from Harper's Weekly, and writing letters to their loved ones at home:
"My Dearest Wife and Babies, A healthy Christmas to you all. I can't say a happy one (though I wish it), for happiness is not ours until we all meet after the war..."

The thing I like best about Historic Fort Wayne is that the local Detroit area military units during the Civil War (and all wars following up through Viet Nam) all came through here before being shipped off to far away lands to fight.
It is a true Civil War & military gem right here in Detroit, and my hat is off to the Fort Wayne Coalition for all they do to keep it alive and vibrant.
One of the houses on the tour was set as a 'house-turned-hospital' and included a doctor, nurses, and a couple of wounded Civil War soldiers. The ladies who portrayed the nurses are in the medical field in their 21st century lives, and all have studied period medicine of the 19th century.
"Mercy Street" come to life.

A former plantation owner awaits his fate as the War begins to takes its toll on the south.
I am disappointed that I did not take any photos inside this house, but we saw tour groups a-comin' and we had to skeedaddle back to our own house.
There were numerous other stops but we needed to return "home" to continue our own Christmas celebrations.
And what would a Christmas celebration be without food? Food has been a staple of this holiday since time immemorial, and naturally we continued this tradition.
Have you ever had a fine meal inside a historic home dining room while in period-correct clothing?
If so, then you know it is quite an experience, especially at Christmas time.
We had a very nice spread for our Christmas Eve dinner, including slices of turkey, cranberries, fruits and vegetables, crackers, and pickles.
Candace served us very well. I believe we shall raise her salary next year!

Grace before mealtime. Always give thanks to God for His generous bounty.

Having our Christmas Eve dinner in the way we do is one of those "you are there" moments. While the 'chosen one' in our group spoke to the guests on the tours, the rest of us acted as if the modern folk were not there and continued our conversation as if we were in the 1860s, which gave them a "taste" of a period dinnertime conversation.

For dessert we had pumpkin pie and freshly made whipped cream.

To some it may seem offensive to have Candace eating alone in the kitchen, but as our servant this was her place to dine.

After our meal, Elizabeth surprised us all with small tokens for Christmas. How very thoughtful and kind...

It is a rarity to be able to see what a bedroom was like after the sun went down while the darkness of evening covered the land in the pre-electric days, for most historic homes are either closed up by nightfall or they do not allow visitors on the 2nd floor without some sort of modern lighting to guide their way. Kristen/Christina wanted that opportunity, so she and I went upstairs and took numerous photographs of her in room lit by a candle.
It is a bit eerie to be in a room only lit by a single flame 
from a candle. I sometimes wonder if those from the era felt 
that same eeriness or were they simply used to it, 
seeing as this was all they knew.
The picture here is one of the more haunting photos I took
The image here makes me think of a melancholy young lady, spending some quiet time in her room, maybe thinking about her betrothed off fighting in the War
For those of us used to electric lighting, we don't really consider how truly dark it was in the world of our ancestors.

Being that we were representing a northern family of the Civil War era, it was only fitting that we were lucky enough to spend some time with the nation's President, Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, President Lincoln was also there and I asked what he had 
planned to tell the visitors when they came to see him. 
His reply? 
"I told the people that after Willie died I was encouraged to read 
the Bible more and to pray more. I did and learned, especially from 
reading the book of Job, that God is really in charge of things, not us. 
Christmas is another reminder of that because we cannot save 
ourselves so God sent a Savior for us. Go forth and have a 
happy Christmas and remember who the boss really is."
I think that is a fine way to end this week's posting, don't you? 
Because of the many Christmas's I have celebrated in this way, I suppose now I can honestly say "just like the ones I used to know" - - - in a strange sort of way.
You know what would be fun to do sometime?
A colonial Christmas.
Yeah...that would be interesting to try...
In the meantime - - - - - - believe me when I say if you can find a group of living historians that have the same passions in bringing the past to life in such a way as virtually experiencing another time and place, grab the opportunity with both hands! Create a journey to the past like no one else can.
And not just during the holiday season.

Have a very Merry Christmas, no matter what era in which you celebrate. And if you are in the Detroit area during the first Saturday in December, you should make an effort to come on out ti Historic Fort Wayne. It's an amazing event.
Until next time, see you in time.

As always, here are a few links for you to peruse if you have further interest in this subject:
A Journey Through a Victorian Christmas in Pictures: HERE
A Colonial Christmas: HERE
To learn more about events at Historic Fort Wayne, click HERE


1 comment:

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

I've always, and still do, dream of an old fashioned Christmas! Wish I could be a part of your group and travel back in time! Everything always looks so perfect and true to the era.
Thanks for sharing and here's wishing you and yours happy "holy days" leading up to the blessed event, Christmas day!