Bringing Up The Rear: Winter Holidays

By Karen L. Hayden

Settling into winter quarters doesn't mean you have to give up this crazy hobby. In fact, many people see it as an excuse for some extra fun. If you can gather a few of them together, you've got a jolly revel.

For the few deprived souls who may not have actually read anything written by Beth Gilgun, you missed a real treat with her current article, "Winter Holidays," in Muzzleloader (Nov./Dec. 1996). Beth has taken the opportunity to share her research on holiday celebration and tradition.

Thanksgiving was number one in New England from the 1750s. Part of the day's festivities included turkey shoots, children's games, and frolicks. This holiday was really a "harvest feast" — not tied to religion and carried over from England. Since the growing season is longer down south, this tradition was left behind.

Since Puritans who "declared Christmas a day of penance, not feasting" in 1647 settled New England, their thoughts on "celebrating" Christmas dominated. Massachusetts was actually forced to rescind its anti-Christmas law in 1681, but things changed slowly. It wasn't until the 19th Century that New Englanders embraced the holiday.

Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Dutch Reformists who settled in the middle and southern colonies brought Christmas with them. Some other religious groups ignored it. Apparently at Colonel William Fitzhugh's house near Fredericksburg, VA, they did not. According to a guest in 1680, there were "three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope walker, and an acrobat who tumbled around" (Frost). Other wealthy people celebrated with balls and fox hunts.

The Catholics by far had the best celebration, according to Peter Kalm. In 1750, he describes the papist services. "Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard today." He also describes the English and Quaker observances. Beth covers emerging traditions such as Christmas trees and gift giving in her article.

If you can't get your hands on Muzzleloader, you can always pull out your copy of Tidings from the 18th Century. (What? You don't have one? Perhaps you should sit on Father Christmas's lap and suitable, humbly, ask for one if you've been good this year!) The article, "A Party in Winter," describes all the preparations for a feast for 45 people! Between their guests dressed in appropriate attire and their cooking fireplace and oven, the Gilguns were really able to capture the spirit of an 18th Century revel.

Another thing adding to the atmosphere is music. The Gilguns were fortunate enough to have R. P. Hale attend with instruments (including harpsichord) in tow. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to have our wonderful musician friends to play for us, but even if we don't, we can still find appropriate music — on tapes or CDs. We've found just playing it in the background adds to the mood.

Holiday music played on authentic instruments is a real treat. It can transport you into the past — into that romantic ideal we have for what Christmas should be. One of my favorites is "New England Christmastide." It was produced by North Star Records, Inc. (1-800-346-2706). Some of the carols on this recording are songs that you won't find anywhere else, like "Herrick's Carol," "Green Groweth the Holly," and "My Dancing Day." The last one features hurdy-gurdy and makes you want to get up and dance!

Another one to get you into the spirit is "Sing We All Merrily — A Colonial Christmas" by Linda Russell & Company. This album has been around since 1986, and if you can't find it anywhere, check with Flying Fish Records, Chicago, IL, for the nearest distributor. Linda harmonizes with some other artists accapella on "All You That Are Good Fellows," a light-hearted romp in comparison to the more somber "The Old Year Now Away Is Fled," sung to the tune of "Greensleeves." "The Cherry Tree Carol" is one of the most imaginative looks into the relationship between Mary and Joseph. When Mary tells Joseph she is with child, he reacts with anger until a small miracle convinces him to accept the news. Not your everyday common "Jingle Bells"!

If you want something magical, there is "Crystal Carols" played on the glass armonica by Dean Shostak. This instrument was invented in 1761 by Ben Franklin. There is something about "Ave Maria" played in this fashion that sends chills down my spine. Dean is joined by a pianist and harpist on some pieces. Other featured pieces are "Greensleeves," "Carol of the Bells," and "Silent Night." This recording is available by writing to Dean Shostak at P.O. Box 465, Williamsburg, VA 23187 or perhaps at your favorite sutler.

The holidays are my favorite time of year. I hope that you had a great time with your family — blood and re-enactor!

Copyright © 1996 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.