Thursday, December 10, 2015

These Are the Shadows of Christmases That Have Been - Christmas at the Fort 2015

“We shall see shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They will have no consciousness of us.”
As the words are spoken, you pass through the wall, and stand upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
You are conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.
(Paraphrased from Stave II of Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’)
~Welcome to our Home~
The ladies of the house are here to greet you.
Living history can be an amazing experience, and there is nothing else quite like it, I dare say. Through diligent research, those who practice the art of living history learn of the past in such ways that go far beyond what school books and college professors teach; we intently study the more intricate details of lives past, then, as living historians, we attempt to bring those times of long ago to the forefront of the consciousness of not only our modern visitors who have an interest in history, but to all who participate.
It takes a special mindset to become engulfed into the period surroundings to where one can let go of the present and become immersed - engulfed - into another period in time; it's more than acting in a scripted play or movie; living historians many times can effectively emulate those who wrote the diaries and stories we have read. We have even studied the manner of speech to help replicate, to a great extent, times long past.
Are we perfect?
Not by a long shot.
But when you find the right people to join you, transportation to the past can almost eerily magically happen.
Having the right people can and will make all the difference in the world.
Now, in the 21st century I have my real life family, with my wife of 31 years, four children (three boys and a girl), a daughter-in-law, and a grandson (with another on the way).
In my immersion time-travels I also have a living history family, though, for the most part, it is not the same as my 21st century family: a wife (on the couch with me), a mother-in-law (on the right), three (sometimes two, depending) daughters (the youngest, in the center, of which is my actual daughter!).
Larissa (who portrays my wife), Kristen (who portrays our eldest daughter), Violet (who portrays my mother-in-law - Larissa's real-life mother) and myself have operated together in this same capacity for a few years, and we find that we just seem to 'click' in creating an 1860s family.
Of course, as far as the make believe marriage of Larissa and I, there is no concern, for our spouses are both very much aware and have no worries. And why should they? Larissa and I are long-time friends who also work well together professionally.

Our two youngest. 
In our world of living history back story, our eldest daughter (not pictured here) was from my first wife, who had passed on many years ago.
These two young ladies came from Larissa and I.
Funny thing...the young girl on the left is my real-life daughter.

Ah---here is our eldest daughter reading to her younger siblings.
In my living history family I also have an older sister (sometimes two older sisters and a brother-in-law). Again, we play off each other very well and, as siblings will many times do, tease each other about the dumb things we did when we were young. Jackie does this very well off the cuff.
I don't do too bad either, but I need to work on a few stories.
It does makes for great dinnertime conversations and reminisces, as you shall see.
In this photo you can meet my sister (on the right) and her daughter, sitting up front. 
The servant stands in the back.
Jackie's husband was away on business on this Christmas Eve and was expected home late that evening. Her husband did very well for himself in the mercantile business, therefore affording a large home along the riverfront.

Three sisters and a cousin. 
Since we live on a farm in our back story, our daughters rarely get the chance to visit with their favorite cousin, Andrea, in the big city of Detroit, so our Christmas visits are quite a treat.

Grandmother gives her eldest granddaughter a beautiful new shawl to wear for the special Christmas holiday.
It was mentioned that we didn't do as much strict 1st person as we have done in other years. Initially I agreed with that statement. I agreed, that is, until I began to really think about our conversations and mannerisms that occurred throughout the day.
I mean, what is 1st person? In the living history world it is an attempt to act and speak as closely as possible as those who actually lived in the time we are emulating.
And I believe, for the most part, for this year's Christmas at the Fort we did very well. You see, 1st person is much more than only speaking the way they spoke in the old days. I have seen 1st person in such a way that presents the past as a bunch of stiff, cardboard cut outs straight out of Gone With the Wind.
That makes me cringe----!
I feel we, in our little historical group, have become regular normal people of the 1860s, and this year, more than any other, we spoke in a more natural manner, attempting to lose the Hollywood tripe and strict etiquette that many tend to follow.
Oh, we did follow the etiquette of the time, but not in such a way that made us 'characters,' you know? Not once did I hear of anyone speak of 21st century subjects: no modern politics, no talk of movies, TV, or modern entertainment, no "remember at the last reenactments when we..." - - nothing of the sort.
We also didn't use, in the modern sense, words such as 'cool' or 'awesome' or any other of a number of slang used in the 21st century.
Did we make mistakes?
Oh, you betcha! But we caught and corrected ourselves to a more accurate 1860s verbiage.
And, 'sister' and I did, at one time (and one time only) reference a couple of lyrics from the old Jefferson Airplane song, 'White Rabbit,' in a sort of inside joke, but we were the only two to understand it (and we laughed quite hard, in spite of ourselves), so it didn't necessarily take away from anything we were doing.
Sometimes one just simply cannot help themselves when an opportunity arises.
Here you see my 'wife' and I as we prepare to take a walk and visit some of the city sights.
Our first stop was to visit the men inside the barracks at Fort Wayne. Yes, the War may have ended but men are still on duty and away from their families on this Christmas holiday, so visitors are always welcome.
To help give the barren barracks a Christmas-y look, these soldiers added a bit of greenery.

Two women brought along some Christmas cheer by way of a carol: they were caroling for the men to bring a slice of home to them.

Next we found a southern home - one owned by folks who, though they had been left destitute due to the War, still had their faith in the future.
How can we be in the north and yet still visit the south? Why, that's the magic of living history.

We thought it might be a fine idea to stop over at the local hospital to spread some Christmas cheer to those who will not be with their families due to illness over the Christmas tide.
War never really hits someone until they see the men who have been directly affected by it. And for us that place was the hospital.

And then there were those who were smitten by the pox. We skeedaddled as soon as we played witness to this poor young girl.

Yikes! My poor wife was frightened of the disease-ridden young lady!

On the way back to my sister's house we ran into a trio of carolers. They performed at the barracks, the southern home, the hospital, and even at our own door. They were wonderful and brought the Christmas spirit to all ears that could hear them.

Back to my sister's home we went to partake in celebrating the holiday with family.

As folks pertaining to be from the 1860s, we entertained ourselves much in the same manner as our counterparts would have: by decorating a Christmas tree, singing Christmas Carols, playing parlor games, and even doing a fun craft.
Christine & Rosalia, along with their cousin, Andrea, decorate the feather tree.
So just what is a feather tree?
Here...let me explain (by way of Victoriana Magazine):
Sister's Feather Tree
Yes, it is actually true that the feather tree was considered the first artificial Christmas tree and they were originally made in Germany as early as 1845.  Like many inventions, the tabletop feather tree came about out of necessity. By the mid-19th century, decorated Christmas trees were more popular than ever; however, in Germany deforestation was widespread, especially during the Christmas holiday season.
It had become the fashion to chop off the tip off a large fir tree to use as a Christmas tree; however, this practice prevented the tree from growing taller and thus made it useless as a timber tree. Statutes were enacted to limit people from having more than one tree, hence protecting the forests. With the introduction of the "goosefeather" feather tree, this problem was resolved. Goose feathers were plentiful and these feather trees began to be produced as a cottage industry as the alternative to cutting a live tree. The goose feather tree became the first artificial Victorian Christmas tree. Metal wire or sticks were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. The feather sticks were drilled into a larger one to resemble the branches on a tree; the feathers were often dyed green to imitate pine needles. The trees were made to resemble the locally growing white pines of the German forestland, so they had wide spaces between their branches, short "needles," and composition "berries" on the end of every branch tip.
My 'sister' and I next to her decorated feather tree.

While the tree was being decorated, Elysabeth and her grandmother sang a carol.
In fact, if you click on the box below, you can watch and listen as this Victorian scene come to life:

When we are back home on our farm, our two youngest girls are busy all day learning the housewifery duties of their mother, while I keep our eldest daughter, Christine, quite busy with me. As Larissa and I have no sons, Christine is treated as if she were a boy (unfortunate for her, but what can I do?) and helps me with the necessary farm chores such as manuring, plowing, harrowing, fence and barn repairs, and caring for the larger animals such as the horses, cows and pigs.
So when an opportunity to do a feminine craft comes along, why, she is always anxious to learn it and teach others.

And she did just that on this Christmas Eve day - we found her teaching the other girls a sewing project...a project involving the making of butterfly jewelry that she had learned.

Christine became a little 'bossy' while showing her family how to make the butterflies - - she even said, "Now, ladies..." as if she were the adult! 
Her mother had to reprimand her and reminded her that she needed to "mind her tongue."

The servant, Agnes, prepared our Christmas Eve dinner.

It was a wonderful dinner of turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes, vegetables, pickles, cheese, breads...and pumpkin pie!

We had fine conversations, regaling our offspring with humorous tales of our youth. Oh! Did we laugh as we remembered the things we did in days gone by. We each had a story to tell - some quite embarrassing - but all in good fun.

~The servant girl Agnes~
The hardest working living historian I know, for she really does work as our servant the entire time. She answers our call when we would like something to drink, she answers the door when someone knocks, she prepares and serves our meal, and then cleans up afterward.  
And, yes, as the servant, she eats alone in the dim oil lamp light of the kitchen.

Because we have been participating in Christmas at the Fort now for so long, we have been entrusted these last few years to eat in the historic dining room of the home, which in itself is a highlight not only for us as living historians, but for visitors as well, who enjoy seeing "Victorians" dining at Christmas time.

After dinner, some of the ladies sang Christmas carols and played parlor games, much to the delight of the tour groups, who enjoyed watching the past come alive before their eyes.

We must not forget the reason why we were at this beautifully restored historic house in the first place: the paying tour groups. There were something like 12 separate tour groups of people who paid to take a guided two hour historical expedition that included, I believe, seven stops, including the barracks, the southern home, the northern home, the hospital, the southern troops barracks, and a visit with President and Mrs. Lincoln.
The visitors!
Yes, Agnes opened up the door to allow them to enter.
As one from our group stepped through the wall of time to speak to the modern folks and teach them about Christmas past, the rest of those still in the 1860s were oblivious to the people from the 21st century and continued on with their Victorian celebration, which makes for a unique experience for all involved.

A few of us took turns speaking to the folks inside our home. Here you see Larissa give a wonderful historical presentation to a group of visitors who wanted to see Christmas Past come to life.
They did not leave disappointed.

A color photo of my 1860s family.
We certainly enjoy presenting in this manner; we all work very well together and many who watch us "in action" believe we are really an actual family! That right there says a lot.

I hope you enjoyed this latest edition of our Christmas at the Fort excursion. We plan for it all year long and work on ideas to help raise the period bar. Living history is not as easy as it may seem, for far too many become "Hollywood" and tend to give a performance instead of showing life as lived. There may not be any 'lines' for us to learn in this time-travel practice, but there sure is a whole lot of information one must study while weeding through the myths thought and taught as truth. As I've said, we are not perfect, but I like to think we are on our way to "being there." And for us, that's the fun of it all - trying to be "there."
And that's what it's all about - - if you ain't having fun, why are you even doing it?
Until next time, see you in time.

For more information about Historic Fort Wayne, please click HERE
Information about the feather tree came from Victoriana On-Line Magazine



Miss K said...

Each year keeps getting better and better! How is that even possible??

Unknown said...

Lovey. Just lovely. I look forward to reading each Christmas post.

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken, Another wonderful post. I get so into your posts being back in time that when you showed "the visitors" it was like...whoa, where did those people from the future come from?! I enjoyed reading it all, especially the history of the feather tree.
Have a wonderful weekend,

The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Many Blessings, Linnie