Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas Celebrations 1862: Country and City - Waterloo Farm and Historic Fort Wayne

From the time I was a tiny tot throughout my adult-hood I had made the attempt to replicate Christmas's from times past,  whether through the old stories such as "A Christmas Carol," or through period Christmas movies, or even the old traditional music.
I just didn't know how to actually take live it.
Mr. Tennies enjoys the simple Christmas Tree
But now that I am a living historian and have learned (and I'm 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.
Though instead of Dickensian England - "A Christmas Carol" is my all-time favorite story - it's mid-19th century America that has taken a hold of me.

Recently a few of us participated (again) in the Christmas on the Farm event in Waterloo, Michigan, portraying family and friends during December 1862. As a good friend of mine noted, "It was like being in a Christmas card!"
Our farm
Yes, it was that good.
We did the same sort of living history presentation as we have done in previous years here, 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 1862.
In other words, it almost seemed as if we were there, back in that second 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 the house and each outbuilding 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 glide 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 jolly Christmas carol, this little bit of social history should give you a different perspective upon hearing this winter song.
And I will speak to the 'visitors of the future' about this so they have a better understanding of my life in 1862.

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 from a time long past, and my wife's spinning was quite the curiosity to those modern folk, especially the children.

 Our good friends Larissa and her mother joined us on this festive occasion and entertained us by playing carols such as Silent Night on the pump organ. I need to ask: have you ever heard a pump organ played while inside of a home? If you haven't, you certainly are missing out for it is an experience for the eyes and ears.

And our two youngest children kept themselves quietly busy playing the game of Pick-Up Sticks.
Even with a constant flow of tour groups coming through, celebrating Christmas on the farm is "just like the ones I used to know." least in the way I have read...
But it is a Currier and Ives print brought to life.

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Mrs. Root decked the halls with boughs of garland

Only one week later, on December 8, I jumped from being a farmer to becoming a well-to-do city man - again on Christmas Eve of 1862 (ahhh...the pleasures of time-travel!). This celebration took place at Historic Fort Wayne in downtown Detroit - an actual fort built on the banks of the Detroit river in the 1840's.
As we've been doing for several years now, a number of us donned our Sunday-best period clothing and brought Christmas past to life for a few hundred tourists. These visitors were put into several tour groups and then followed their guides to different areas on the expansive grounds on the site; they visited the barracks where Civil War soldier reenactors were participating in the same activities their 1860's counterparts would have done a hundred and fifty years ago. From there, the guide then lead them to a home to show what it was like for poor southern families in a battle town during that time, then to another home - set in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to show a house turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers of that battle.
You know, for being in Detroit, our reenactors did a tremendous job in these south-centric scenarios.   
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.
Our house was as ornate and elegant as any Victorian home I have seen, and we got to call it "home"! 
The parlor of my "sister's" elegant home

My 1862 "family"
There were seven of us that put on this presentation and together we planned out our scenario for the visiting public, something that would be realistic. You see, it's easy to have a bunch of reenactors hanging around in period clothing looking like...well....a bunch of reenactors hanging around in period clothing! But it takes time and effort and a special want to transport themselves - by sight, sound, touch, and action - to a long ago actually be there. And, thus, present a fairly accurate depiction of history. I believe our group was one such group of time-travelers.
(I'm not trying to sound big-headed here. It's just that everything went so well...pert-near perfect!)
Here was our scenario:
Agnes serves my "wife"
Sarah Root was my sister and this was the home of she and her husband, a lumber baron away on business, Nora was our cousin visiting for the holidays, Larissa became my wife, and she & I, with our two children Christina, our eldest daughter, and my for real daughter Rosalia, were in from out of town to spend the holidays with my sister. Also, we had the young lady who portrays our domestic servant at a number of our normal reenactments there and she became my sister's servant at this event. And this young domestic was given by her employer, without choice, a new name - the name of Agnes, for it was felt Agnes would be an easy name to remember. This was a common practice at the time.
Later in the evening, a second domestic was 'hired' on to help Agnes with all of her duties while the rest of us prepared for and enjoyed the Christmas frivolities.

The celebration of Christmas then commenced, and the ladies all pulled the greenery from the trunk, as well as the feather tree, and did a fine job in their decorating, as you can see my "wife" and "daughter" in the photo on the left. Afterward, both of my daughters spent the afternoon crocheting and playing the game of dominoes while my wife and sister took turns entertaining us by playing Christmas carols on the organ, our cousin singing along in a most spirited voice. Though I spent some of our celebrating time by reading aloud from Mr. Dickens' novel "A Christmas Carol," every-so-often I took time out from that wonderful story to read also of the latest news of the War from Harper's Weekly, including the reports from a battle which took place in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

As the day turned to night, parlor games were played by all of us and much laughter was heard. One such game involved each participant to make the sound of a barn animal of their own choosing each time said animal was mentioned in a story told by an agreed upon story teller. Such hilarity made a fine Christmas Eve game!

We all enjoyed playing parlor games in the evening

All in all, this was a unique presentation, for the group of 21st century visitors in the tour groups were not allowed to roam throughout the home and speak to the various living historians as they may normally had done at other museums or at reenactments. They, instead, were able to witness, while standing in the doorways of the various rooms, everyday life from the past, as if peering through a portal through time. Upon noticing the tour group in the doorway, a member from our group of living historians would inconspicuously get up from our activity and move over to where the visitors were to speak of how we were celebrating this special holiday in a combination 1st and 3rd person manner.
Here I am, stepping out of the past to speak to the future...
The rest, still in 1862, were oblivious to these 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.
It was almost an ethereal way for the visitors to peek in and see Christmas Eve 1862 in action while hearing a live narration of the Christmas customs from the time.
Three of us would switch off as presenter.

But it didn't stop there; for the most part, we stayed in our first person mode even while no visitors were about: ringing the bell for Agnes when we needed water or something else, playing our games, singing the carols, reading, and speaking to each other in an 1860's manner.

My two daughters (the one on the right is my actual daughter).
Folks, this Christmas at the Fort event was probably one of the very best of any reenactment I have participated in; top five definitely. And it was for certain number one out of all the living history Christmas events I've done.
Yes, we were there, of this there is no doubt.
That's how good it was.
Christmas 1862
Upon reading the above two scenarios on commemorating Christmas farm and city in 1862, I take pleasure in my assumption that there was not much of a difference in the way we as living historians celebrated in our reenactment as compared to the way our ancestors celebrated.
That's what happens when one researches the minute details in history.
I'm proud...and happy.

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As mentioned earlier on in this post, there were two other houses at Historic Fort Wayne that were open to the public - one showing a home-turned-hospital directly after a battle, and the other depicting a poor southern family. Remember a few minutes ago when I wrote that it took special living historians to transport themselves through time - by sight, sound, touch, and action - to a long ago actually be there, and, thus, present a fairly accurate depiction of history?  Well, here are two other groups that did a wonderful job in bringing the past to life.
As I had little to do with these scenarios, I'll let the photographs tell the story:
This young lady helps a wounded Union soldier while a Confederate lays right next to him. The nurses saw no blue or grey, only men who needed medical help.
A mother tends to her severely wounded son
The ladies tended to these men by day...
...and by night.
A poor southern family who have lost most everything they own tries to make this as good a Christmas as their means will allow
The group depicting a poor southern family after Fredericksburg
It is my hope that more reenactors and living historians take the time and research holidays such as Christmas to show the celebrations our ancestors held so dear.
Oh what fun one can have...
Merry Christmas 1862!



Stephanie Ann said...

It sounds like it was a very cool experience. I Love A Christmas Carol too. I'm always looking for ways to make Christmas much more of a celebration and much less about the stress of it all.

An Historical Lady said...

Excellent post as always. gave me goosebumps! It does indeed seem so real!
I am sure if they had color film, modern carmeras and video cams their holidays and people would have looked just like these!
What fun!

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Another great post, I do enjoy them so much. Thanks for filling us in on the history of jingle bells, I never knew the reason for those bells but it makes sense. Your "sister's" house is a beauty! Gina

Richard Cottrell said...

Love the tree in the first photo. I looked and looked for one like that. Not to be found in my world. Thanks for making my Christmas an old fashion one. Richard from My Old Historic House.

Historical Ken said...

Sorry I'm late in responding, but thanks everyone. I do believe the "city" Christmas we did was perhaps the best I've ever done.
I did feel I was "there!"