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.



Anonymous said...

What an amazing service you provide! I love "the watchfires of a hundred circling camps", when all the spectators have gone home, and the only people left are in costume. That's when living history really comes alive!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you both (and Adam, too!) for such kind comments.
TNJ - I fully agree with you about how the past comes alive once the visitors have left. Why stop, right?
Mary - I am blessed to have friends such as you and Adam, even though we've never met in person. I agree that if we lived near each other we would all become great "actual" friends as well.

Have a blessed and Merry Christmas

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Ken, you are a lucky man to be able to do living history at different venues.

I was wondering about the floor covering in that house. Is that drugget? I've only read descriptions of it, but have never seen any authentic drugget.


Historical Ken said...

Pam -
I'm not sure if it's drugget or not though I know it was woven right there in that house on a loom they have set up.
I will try to find out for you!