Friday, December 30, 2011

Thoughts As The Season Winds Down

The circa 1832 Eagle Tavern is festively decked for the Holiday Season
I have to say that this was probably the best Christmas season ever for me. And it's still not over, for we have the New Years Celebration coming up. Now, I'm not really big on New Years, to be honest. To me it is just taking me further away from the past, distancing me from a period of which I love. On the other hand, a new year also gives me the opportunity to learn even more about the past through newly discovered research, thus bringing me closer to the time I love.
Don't try to figure that out!
The front sitting room table in Giddings House 1750
Anyhow, I would like to wish all of you a very Happy and Peaceful New Year. Please be safe - not just on New Years Eve, but for the whole of the year and all the years to come.

Stay tuned - there are plenty more postings about living history, reenacting, and general social history on the way...

Lanterns near the front door of the 1750 Giddings House light the way for visitors

A Christmas verse published by Joseph Royle in 1765 in The Virginia Almanack:
Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry now provide,
To feast thy neighbours at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with Mirth conclude the Year.
(taken from the Colonial Williamsburg Facebook page)


Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas 1860 ~~and~~2011

...Now for a Christmas description from Godey's Lady's Book December 1860:
Miss Moses is ready for the ride from the city to the country
Christmas, the general holiday, has its charms for each. In towns there is much consultation as to toilet, for though the children absorb the morning, and it is proper to be seen at church, it is not less certain that the intimate gentlemen friends of the family will make their appearance by the time a demi-toilet can be dispatched, a little rehearsal of the general reception that marks the New Year. There are symptoms of it in the well-spread lunch table of the luxurious drawing room, in the impromptu grouping of ladies of the house with the first tinkle of the doorbell, and its enjoyment culminates in the entrance of "the coming man," who "takes the liberty of bringing his friend Marks," already well known in society as "superb in the German."
The country cousins, meantime, have already dined! - unfashionable creatures - and enjoyed with keen appetites the ample bountiful Christmas dinner the barnyard and the garden's latest gifts of crisp celery, winter vegetables, and fruit have contributed to. The air is keen and clear, the sky unclouded sapphire, the roads in their prime of sleighing from yesterday's travel over the last cheerful snowstorm. They, too, have "gentlemen friends" who are only too happy to pay their devoirs in the clear open air, and in much merriment the sleighing party is made up to dash along with chiming bells and song and laughter. An upset now and then is counted in with the amusements of the day, so that no one is hurt, and who ever is? by a fall into a yielding snowbank!


In the colonial Giddings kitchen
 December 2011:
Our annual trek to Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village has expanded: by the time the Christmas season is over I'll have been there a total of seven times! You see, this year my period vocal group, Simply Dickens, has been contracted to sing there for six nights! Yes, we have been set up in the gazebo near the Ackley Covered Bridge and perform our old world carols for the throngs of visitors who pass by. Many will stop and listen to the little known carols from Christmas past and, happily, remain there, enthralled by the music of our ancestors.
Simply Dickens in Greenfield Village
For a group like ours, having the opportunity to play in such a place as Greenfield Village during the ever-popular Holiday Nights is akin to performing at Cobo Hall for a major recording artist. Thousands of people stroll past us as they hear Past Three O'Clock, Gloucestershire Wassail, Riu Riu Chiu, The Boar's Head Carol, The Sans Day Carol, and even Silent Night sung in German. Many will stop and listen, and in doing so will get to hear a little bit of the history of each ancient carol sung by the group.
The Ladies Aid Society in Smiths Creek Depot
This Christmas season also saw my wife participating at Holiday Nights as well; she portrayed one from a Ladies Aid Society in Smiths Creek Depot with fellow living historian Lorna Paul. Now, you must understand that, though my wife enjoys reenacting, she's never done it without me with her. This is the first time she had ever taken it upon herself to participate in such a thing on her own. And she absolutely loved it! Not only was she was able to crochet and knit items for our fighting men in blue, but had the opportunity to give the visiting patrons a tour and give a bit of history on the depot itself.
I visited the lovely ladies at the depot

~Note the feather tree~
One thing my wife has never done was to visit the Crocker House Museum in Mt. Clemens, so this year I finally took her there. She was so aglow at the sight of this restored Victorian home. Crocker House is run by my good friend Kim Parr, a true living historian and a wealth of 19th century information. Kim used to be a master presenter at the aforementioned Greenfield Village and has brought her well-gained knowledge from those years over to the Crocker House.
The rooms in Crocker House 
are authentically decorated
This 1869 home is beautifully decorated as it might have been in the late 19th century and, to an extent, in the early 20th century. Teas are held multiple times during the Christmas Season (including my favorite, the Simply Dickens Tea!) and each one is a sell out.

Santa comes down the stairs at Crocker House

The display accurately conveys the scenes from the movie "A Christmas Story."
Another fun Christmas thing we did this year was to visit the Plymouth Historical Museum (in Plymouth, Michigan - not Plymouth Mass.), where they have a pretty fun exhibit of "A Christmas Story" vignettes throughout there Street of Old Plymouth display.

Randy lay there like a was his only defense!
Christmas is what you make it. If it's stress and malls that you think of when Christmas comes around then maybe you should take a step back, breathe a little, and take in all your town has to offer. Christmas is so much more...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Having a Historic Christmas in My Own Home

Yes, the candles are real and are lit on our tree. We cut our tree down ourselves at a Christmas tree farm so we know it's fresh. I have been doing this for over 25 years and can honestly say it is truly a beautiful sight to behold.
Well, I got my house all decked out for Christmas. Since it is a modern bungalow, built in 1944, decorating in a period style can be rather difficult. But, in 1999 we added on a large room in the back, and it was based off several designs from certain homes located inside of Greenfield Village. We are not rich or well-to-do even, but over the last eleven years or so we have collected numerous antique furniture pieces; items bought at very good prices through friends, acquaintances, or even on a lucky buy, and have furnished this room to give a fairly accurate mid-19th century appearance. Needless to say, this period atmosphere has spilled over into Christmas time.
Well, as you know, I enjoy visiting museums - besides Greenfield Village I also frequent Crossroads Village, Waterloo Farms, Crocker House Museum, Charlton Park, and any number of other historically accurate localities. And I photograph nearly every nook and cranny - inside and out - of these beautiful historic places. I do the same thing at Christmas, for I enjoy the period feeling one gets when inside these old structures no matter what the season. And I try to take a little bit from each locale and blend the ideas together as I decorate my back room in order to keep it unique to me and my family.
It seems to work.
The other evening we hosted a number of our living history friends for our annual "A Christmas Carol" party. No one dresses in their period clothing for this gathering; we come together as friends with mutual interests, share snacks and drinks, and then settle down to watch one of the many filmed versions of this greatest Christmas movie of all time. This year happened to be the 1951 Alistair Sim version from 1951.
Anyhow, quite a few friends showed up  and a few comments were made by a couple of the guests: the first comment was over-hearing one guest speak on the phone to his son about how he was at a party, sitting in an authentic room from the 1860's. Now, I must note that this gentleman works at Greenfield Village as a historic presenter.
Another guest, also a worker at Greenfield, mentioned to me directly that he felt like he was at work, "only I can touch and sit on this stuff. We're not allowed to at the Village."
A third guest, who visits my wife and I often, upon seeing my decorations noted how accurate they were as well. This friend is the director and curator at Crocker House Museum as well as being a former master presenter at the, ahem, Village of Greenfield.
Comments like this coming from these kinds of folks is quite a high honor for me. I was on such a high upon hearing this!
If you have (hopefully) read my two most recent postings on my Christmas time-travel adventures:
(Christmas at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit
Ghosts of Christmas Past), you will know how hard I strive to bring Christmas of long ago back to life. Every year I think I get a little closer...
I took a few photos and I thought I would share with you Christmas at my house.
I hope you enjoy them:

Opposite the Christmas tree shown at the top of this post is the sitting area of our Gathering Room/Parlor. My wife will sit here for hours - literally - and spin  wool into yarn on her spinning wheel
This is where I come to "get away" from it all when modern society gets to me and I haven't the time (or energy) to go to Greenfield Village

Most of what you see in this room are actual mid-19th century antiques - some a little older, some a little newer - but all close to the era of which I strive to replicate. Except the fireplace...I'll explain that shortly...

This particular picture was not taken at my house (tho' I wish it were!); this was taken at the Waterloo Farm in 2010. I love the way they decorated the fireplace mantle very traditionally. I tried to replicate this look on my own fireplace...

...what do you think? Close? Now, my fireplace is not a real one, this is obvious. Since we don't have one at all in our home my mother bought us this heater/faux fireplace. Even though it's not real, it certainly gives a fine appearance, don't you think?

Even though I'm showing this with the lit candles, we do have electric lights on our tree as well. We only light the candles once during the season, and they stay lit only for around 15 minutes or so. The rest of the time we have 21st century period-correct tiny electric lights.

I hope you enjoyed the little tour of Christmas at my home. I do wish you the merriest of Christmas's!!


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit

Another weekend in December - another Christmas time-travel experience...

That's our home - the white one 
(This photo from the Fort Wayne website)

Historic Fort Wayne is located in downtown Detroit and is situated on the Detroit River at a point where it is about a mile to the Canadian shore. The original 1848 limestone barracks (with later brick additions) still stands, as does the 1845 Star fortification (renovated in 1863 with brick exterior facing). On the fort grounds but exterior to the original star fort are additional barracks, officers quarters, hospital, shops, recreation building, commissary, guard house, garage, and stables.

Our entrance way - quite elegant, 
wouldn't you say?

The star fort today is substantially similar to the original construction, although some changes have been made.
It's here that annual Civil War reenactments take place during the summer months. It's also here during December that a semi-annual Christmas living history event will also take place known as Christmas at the Fort.
(The above was taken from Wikipedia)
Ready to begin our 
Christmas Eve 1861 celebration

On December 10th of this year a number of us donned our period clothing and brought the past to life for a few hundred tourists that took a scheduled tour, stopping at different locations to learn of Christmas celebrations past. They visited the barracks where Civil War soldiers were shown participating in the same activities they would have done a hundred and fifty years ago. They also stopped at a home to show what it was like for southern families during that time.
I was part of a group stationed inside a very elegant commander's home, though our scenario wasn't about the commander; it was to show how a well-to-do northern family would have celebrated Christmas Eve.
The house was as ornate and elegant as any Victorian home I have seen, and we got to call it "home"!
Family and friends gathered in our front parlor 
to enjoy this joyous holiday

This was a unique presentation, for the group of visitors were not allowed to roam throughout the home and speak to the various living historians. They, instead, were able to stand in the doorways of the various rooms to peak in and see the 1860's 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 we were celebrating Christmas.
Yes, we were ghosts of Christmas Past 
to the visitors from the future
The rest of us continued reading, singing, knitting, playing games, or doing whatever else we were in the midst of and were oblivious to those apparitions from the future. And then, when our presenter had finished their talk, they re-joined our group and continued as if they had never left.
I must say, this was a bit difficult to do as a presenter. We normally ask if there are any questions or employ the help of another reenactor in a sort of tag-team presentation. We're not used to just ending our speech and walking away. So, we kind of did a combination of the two. It worked well but it is my hope that should we do this again next Christmas that we re-visit this goal and see if we can make it kind of an ethereal presentation.
We gathered 'round the pump organ 
and sang Christmas carols
We did have a fine time as living historians bringing Christmas past to life. We took turns reading from the various material including Dickens "A Christmas Carol," the latest issue of Harper's Weekly (from December 1861), and from a book of poetry, short stories, and other period correct verses. We sang Christmas Carols to a pump organ, and played parlor games. And some of the ladies crochet and knitted Christmas gifts for their loved ones off fighting the rebellion.
Our servant girl continued doing what 
she was paid to do, especially on Christmas Eve!
As any wealthy family would have employed, we had a domestic there, cleaning, sweeping, and keeping house for us. She was included in our scenario here and there: while we had a group of visiting public inside, our servant would stop what she was doing and take a peak inside the room to view the celebrating. I, of course, would chastise her and send her back to her duties of which I pay her for. The tour group loved this.
On a side note, as we gathered all of our participants together for a group photo, one elegantly dressed woman told the domestic, "Servants in the back!"
The young lady obliged.
Yes, we do take our fun seriously.
Posing for a photograph - 
this is what WE saw
But it is fun and it is role playing - by choice - and that's why I love working with the living historians that I do. They are top-notch. Yes, there is room for improvement. But, we are heading in the right direction, and with each event that we present in this manner we raise our bar a bit higher.
Posing for a photograph - 
this is what the future sees
As I stated in my last post (Ghosts of Christmas Past) I have always dreamt of the days of Christmas past, from the time I was a tiny tot throughout my adult-hood, and I had attempted numerous times to replicate Christmas's from an era long ago.
And now my wish, my dream, my prayer seems to be coming true.
I never thought I'd see the day...

~If you would like to see more photos of this event, please click HERE to see photographer Ian Kushnir's picture album on Facebook~


Monday, December 5, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas Dreaming...
"Our Home"
Many do their Christmas Dreaming a little early. There are those who dream of a White Christmas. Some even dream of sugar plums dancing in their heads.
As for me, I have always - always - dreamt of the days of Christmas past.
From the time I was a tiny tot throughout my adult-hood I had made the attempt to replicate Christmas's from the time of Charles Dickens, whether through the old stories such as "A Christmas Carol," movies ("Carol" of course, and a few others), as well as the old traditional music.
I just didn't know how to actually take part - to live it.
But now that I am a living historian and have learned (and still learning) how to bring back to life an era of which no one alive today can say they have personally witnessed, my Christmas Dream is coming to pass.
Recently a few of us participated (again) in the Christmas on the Farm event in Waterloo, Michigan, portraying family and friends during December 1861. As a good friend of mine noted, "It was like being in a Christmas card!"
Yes, it was that good.
We did the same sort of living history presentation here last year, and once again I believe it came off very authentic, very real.
Yeah, I know, there I go again. But it's true - there were times I almost felt I was back in 1861.

In other words, I believe, in a way, we were there, back in that first December of the Civil War on a farm enjoying the period after harvest time where, though plenty of work still needed to be done, it also was a more relaxing time of year. You see, Once we completed harvesting our crops I worked very hard on banking up my home and farm by insulating the north sides of each structure against the coming winter, and preparing our sleigh and its runners to ensure its readiness for travel over hill and dale. Of course, my daughter shined the jingling bells up nicely, and I can just see them glistening in the rare sunlight - or even moonlight - this coming January and February when they will jingle as we ride along the snow-covered roads. Many folks believe that the jingle bells are a Christmas delight because of the ever-popular song written in the mid-1850's. That is truly not the case: jingle bells were put on sleighs for safety reasons. The horse's clip-clopping usually heard along the roads during the other three seasons are muffled greatly by the snow-covered ground of wintertime, and the head gear folks wear also muffle the sound of the on-coming beasts and carriages, making the pedestrian pert-near deaf. This could be a dangerous situation except for the sounds of the jingle bells warning the pedestrian to move out of the way. Just as horns are required on the modern day motor vehicles, bells were once a must for winter travel on sleighs. "Keeping to the Right" upon hearing the jingling of a sleigh was the rule then as it is for automobiles today.
Lest you think of "Jingle Bells" as strictly a Christmas carol, this little bit of social history should give you a different perspective upon hearing this winter song.
As my wife spins on her wheel, Mrs. Root entertains with a Christmas reading
Spinning wool into yarn to make the necessities for the coming winter months was as important a task as any, and my wife presented a pleasing picture of 19th century womanhood as she sat behind her wheel. Many visitors from the future passed through "our home" and had numerous questions about our lives in the past, and my wife's spinning was quite the curiosity to those modern folk, especially the children.
Can you imagine children who have never seen a spinning wheel? These kids from the future certainly haven't!

My daughter kept her hands busy by knitting a scarf for her brother off fighting in the war, and we allowed our domestic to take time in the afternoon to do the same for her own beau.

A more beautiful rendition of "What Child Is This" I have not heard
Our very good friend, Mrs. Root, joined us in our Christmas celebrations. It was unfortunate that her journey was a bit arduous, for there was trouble with the carriage wheel along the way and they had to wait for a local wright to repair it. But, once she arrived safely she made herself quite at home and entertained us with her many talents, first by playing Christmas carols on our pump organ; the beautiful strains of "What Child Is This" coming from our formal parlor wafted throughout the entire house, giving an air of Christmas Past that only such an instrument can give.  Mrs. Root also entertained us by her expressive reading of Christmas stories from a newly purchased book. One such story, The Christmas Tableau, was particularly enjoyable.
Mrs. Fleishman rocked little Zane to sleep in the cradle
Other friends joined us as well: Mrs. Fleishman and her mother both arrived by early afternoon. Mrs. Fleishman had brought her five month old baby boy with her, and as he smiled and coo'd he kept everyone very light-hearted indeed. I must say that little Zane added a note of realism one doesn't normally hear at living history events, which is the natural act of a baby's cry. Hearing that tiny voice throughout the farmhouse made our whole presence there that much more real. And then to find him rocked to sleep by his mother in the wooden cradle shortly thereafter was the topping on the cake.
Idle hands are the devil's workshop - no idle hands here!

The following day was a bit quieter, as it should had been, for this was Sunday - the Lord's Day. It was only Carrie (our domestic who would, on this day, act as my daughter) and Mrs. Cook, another dear friend who portrayed my sister, that joined me, although there were others from the Waterloo Historical Society throughout the other areas of the house as well.
My friend, Mrs. Zuccala, was also present on this second day and portrayed a woman of the house who happened to be nursing an injured arm she received when the horses jolted her out of the buckboard and onto the ground. Luckily, Doc Howard told us she had not broken any bones but was to let it rest in a sling for a week to heal.
Mrs. Cook certainly enjoyed the feather tree
It was very enjoyable to interact not only with other living historians in a first person manner, but with the visitors as well. They seemed to enjoy the interplay between us and them, and we tried to include them in our scenario. For instance, I would usually ask these very modern children if they remembered to do their morning chores before venturing out: did they empty the chamber pots? Did they trim the wick and clean the chimney's on the oil lamps? Did they get the milking done?
It went over very well. And I hope it helped them to relate to their role in history had they been born 'back then.'
Mrs. Zuccala, her arm in the sling from the buckboard incident, and I relaxed on the sette'

The realism of this time-travel event didn't end solely with the sights and sounds of the farmhouse, by the way. There were other little things that added to the experience such as the odor of kerosene from the oil lamps, the smell of wood burning in the stoves upon entering the home, the scent of baking emanating from the kitchen where women were busily making Christmas confections, and even heading outside to the icy cold necessary (outhouse/bathroom) which was quite a ways from the house itself when one had to, um...go.
Hmmm...wonder where they are coming from...?
And the few inches of snow upon the ground on Saturday gave it that Christmas Card feeling even more so. It was unfortunate that it had melted by Sunday's arrival.

So my dream of living a Christmas of long ago seems to be coming to pass.
I am in heaven...
Mrs. Zuccala looking for Christmas to come...

By the way, if it weren't for my wife and children, Mrs. Root, Mrs. Fleishman and her mother Mrs. Kyryluk, Miss Graber, Mrs. Cook, and Mrs. Zuccala, there would be no Christmas Past for me. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.
Also, a very special thank you must go out to the Waterloo Historical Society for allowing all of us to live out our Christmas dream.
I am proud to say I am a member.