Monday, October 16, 2017

Fall Traditions: Blending Now With Then

New traditions-old traditions---
It's autumn...let's celebrate the past!
Throughout the year there are annual traditions that I participate in, such as cutting down our Christmas Tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving, going to the Kalamazoo Living History Show in March, my 4th of July period-dress visit to Greenfield Village, Terror on Tillson Street in historic Romeo for Hallowe'en...
I am very much your a-typical creature of habit.
So why stop it if it's enjoyed, right?
The best part is, there is always room for a new tradition, and fall is the perfect time to do so!
You see, I once described autumn as "wooden." That's because, to me, its the time of year, more than any other, where tradition reigns, and the past and present can easily merge, for, whether they realize it or not, it's when modern folk tend to become a bit more old-fashioned and do more traditional things.
Maybe that's why it's my favorite season, for what other time of year do people visit the old cider mills, bake (not buy) pies, take walks or drives just to look at the multitude of colors - reds, browns, orange, golds, and even some still green - of the leaves on the trees. Entire sections of our great country, including the Midwest and New England, have become fall tourist destinations due to the colors that abound.
Even in cities.
Yes, autumn truly is wooden.
And traditional.
One custom that began for me when I don't remember ever not doing it, is apple picking. Every September my thoughts drift back to my childhood where I would head to the apple orchards with my parents and run from tree to tree, picking only the most perfect apples. My mother, who made the best apple pies anywhere, preferred McIntosh (which have been around since the 1790s) for baking, and the big green Granny Smith (from the 1860s) for eating. And the scent of apples in our kitchen - whether still in the basket or being baked in a pie - along with a brisk fall nip in the air, are emblazoned deep in my memory, and will be, I suppose, for as long as I will have a memory
And maybe then some...
Yes...apples will do that to me...
McIntosh apple trees as far as the eye can see...

...and me and my family next to the misspelled sign.

A bushel full of apples
This family tradition is now carried on with my wife Patty and I and our children, and even to our grandchildren (who could not come this year, but we'll have 'em back next year!). Out to the rural orchards we go, still picking McIntosh for pie baking (my mother taught Patty well), as well as a few other types, including Jonathan (1820s) and Idared (Ida Red - from the 1940s).
We bring our own wooden bushel, more suitable to the 18th and 19th centuries than the bushel baskets we are familiar with today, and, quite frankly, over-fill it. But we're honest and pay for the extras.
Plus, there is nothing like eating an apple fresh off of the tree!
My daughter found the perfect apple!
Lately, because of my passion for living history and attempting to immerse myself into the knowledge of the everyday life of the past, I have been finding (and purchasing) heirloom apples - the kind of apples most people today know nothing about but were quite popular in days of old. Names such as Rambo, Maiden Blush, Roxbury Russett, Blue Pearmain - these were some of the popular cooking and cider apples of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yes, they can still be found if you search hard enough on the internet. I have taken to displaying some of these heirloom apples at our 1860s fall harvest presentation with the reenacting group I belong to. thinking about it, I believe McIntosh could be considered an heirloom apple since it was first developed in the 1790s!
We don't like going to the cider mills that have all the frills and spills of a carnival. We prefer the simple cider, doughnuts, apples, and maybe a haystack to climb on.
Melting beeswax over an open fire.
But there is always room for new traditions. One that I began last year was candle dipping. Now, I've done candle dipping plenty of times before at Greenfield Village, and also at reenactments, but recently it's been taking place at my own home in our yard. You see, last year I wanted to have a nice display of dipped and tin-molded beeswax candles for display at our annual historical harvest home presentation reenactment, and I knew it would be quite a long process if it were just me doing it. So I asked my daughter if she thought a few of her friends would be interested in helping out and she responded they absolutely would. It turned out to be such a good time, and I ended up with over thirty candles! Well, a number of my adult friends commented to me that they would like to try this old-time fall ritual, for they had never done such a craft before, so this year it was my friends who came.
First off, please understand: some of the things we consider to be 'crafty fun' was once a necessity.
For our ancestors, making candles was a necessity.

Welcome to my back yard in suburban America.
No, the yellowish house you see is not's my back neighbor's who I have never seen in the 26 years I've lived here.
A-waiting their turn to dip.
I've been told that the average home during colonial times would go through 500 to 700 candles a year. Of course, larger more well-to-do homes would go through two or three times that many, while poorer folk and frontier families would go through much less.
I let my friends know this little historical bit before we began the candle-making process, just so they would keep in mind how ardently self-sufficient and perseverant our ancestors actually were.
Initially, my apprenticed chandlers found this ritual to be fun, though as they continued their dips it became a bit more trying. I believe they also learned to appreciate our ancestors a bit more and were glad to have the convenience (though expensive) of the electric light.
I find it interesting in the way that modern folks look at those of us who carry on past traditions in a rather odd sort of manner. For instance, my wife, who is constantly crocheting or knitting something (hats, scarves, afghans) will go through the process of skirting, picking, cleaning, and then carding dirty raw wool in preparation for spinning it into yarn on her spinning wheel. And then, after spinning, she will dye it to a preferred color naturally by using flower peddles, cochineal beetles or walnuts & tree bark. Only then will she begin her next crochet or knitting project.
My daughter has been dipping candles
since she was about four years old.
She's a pro!
That's quite a lot of preparation beforehand, wouldn't you say? In fact, Patty has been asked (or told, rather) why doesn't she just head up to JoAnn Fabrics or some other store that sells yarn and buy it cheaper and ready to go?
Some people just don't get it.
There's something about making or building an item from scratch. A good example is how my wife made for me a period knitted cap in the same style as was worn during the Revolutionary War/colonial period in our nation's history, and I proudly let people know that it is not only period correct in style, but that it began from her raw wool pile, meaning she went through the entire process from sheep to shawl, just like what would've been done in the 1770s.
And, yes, she takes great pride in that as well!
I mean, there's little pride in our Made-By-Cheap-Labor-in-Some-Other-Country-throw away society items. This, of course, is the same for making candles, which are so much better and last much longer than the store-bought tapers.
And methinks this candle dipping party just might continue to be an annual autumn tradition.
My friend (and co-worker) here teaches U.S. History to 10th graders, of which I help out, and I know she will use this experience to add to her teaching experience. 
She loved the fact that we were doing this chore very close to the same way as the founding generation did.

Here it is, nearly mid-October, and the temperature was sneaking up to the low 80's when it's supposed to be in the 60's! 
I look forward to that nip-in-the-air fall weather all the year long, and we're still stuck with summer! Grrr!
Well, I can honestly say, weather aside, it certainly looked and, because of what we were doing, felt like autumn!
We enjoyed soup, cider, doughnuts, and other snacks to munch on while we spent the afternoon making the candles. Time spent with friends old and new partaking in an ancient craft of our ancestors.
After dipping to the desired size, the candles were hung to dry on a traditional style candle rack that I had made.
Now, there were others ways to make candles besides dipping.
Our ancestors also used candle molds. It was in this way a goodly amount could be made all at once.
One of the questions a am frequently asked is how they got the candles out of the mold once they hardened, for our modern candle maker prefers to use a spray, which was something not yet available back in the olden days.
The secret used in days of old to pulling candles out of the mold was to dip the mold with the hardened wax into a vat of boiling water for only a few seconds, and then the candles will slide out like melted butter.

Yes, this works beautifully!
Our ancestors were brilliant people!
And here you go!
A lost art continues on in our modern day...
Nearly 40 candles were made this day - far short of the
500 minimum the average colonial home used!
But it was a good start and a whole lotta fun!

I live in a suburb bordering the city of Detroit. In fact, if you've ever heard of the movie called "8 Mile," well, that street runs right along the south border of my city. Being this is the case, one would think there would not be too much autumn beauty on the streets here.
Ah, but there is!
And I have pictures to prove it!
From my back yard looking to my neighbor's yard two doors to the north.
Beauty in the city...
For this next picture there's a neat little story to tell:
On Friday, April 29, 2005, my wife and I visited Greenfield Village in celebration of Arbor Day (yeah, we'll use any excuse to go), and they were giving away small saplings to the guests, so, of course, my wife accepted one.
Once we got home, she planted it in our backyard in memory of her sister, who had passed away the previous December. Patty cared for this tree, ensuring its survival by stacking bricks around it so no one would step on it or cut it with the lawn more (yes, it was that little), and hoping the tiny thing would survive our tough Michigan winters.
Well, here 'tis in 2016:
Patty's oak tree in all its autumn splendor, planted in
our backyard in memory of her sister Lisa.

My city little city, known for being the hometown of astronaut Jerry Linenger, has cookie-cutter starter homes for new families. But it also has beautiful late 19th and early 20th century houses that are very well kept in an area that is great to walk around during the colorful months of autumn.

Except for a seven year apartment life jaunt when I was first married, I have lived in my hometown of Eastpointe since 1968, when it was known as East Detroit.
I still do.
I loved the fall colors back then, too.

Not many cities can claim to have a South Park.
Mine can!

I snapped this squirrel in a pine tree near the house I grew up in.

My daughter.
She and I take annual autumn walks around the area where I grew up,
and she will ask me questions about my youth.
This is a very special time for she and I.
I am always amazed at how often I hear people say, "I would love to do that" when they see me or any other reenactor doing something that harkens back to days of old. My response is, "why don't you?" for, as you can see, one doesn't necessarily have to reenact the past or visit someplace historical to enjoy historical pleasures, activities, and traditions. 
And what memories can be made - - -

Until next time, see you in time.

To learn about autumn traditions of the past, click HERE

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