By Ian Gray
Amid the soft (albeit electric) candlelight the decorations seemed to sparkle as the faint sound of enchanting caroling streamed in from outside. Surrounded by a plethora of red and green, visitors were taken back over 100 years into the past when Victorian America was inventing our modern Christmas. At the end of the evening families left having formed fond memories of melodious music, captivating storytelling, sumptuous sweets, and pleasing aesthetics while learning a bit about where and how our unique American Christmas originated. All the while, yours truly was thinking one thing—I pulled it off!
Shortly after starting my time with the Cockayne Farmstead planning for our annual Christmas event began and I was put in charge. Throwing myself into the season well before the first snowfall, I proceeded to become an encyclopedia on the holiday and how our modern celebration came about. An intriguing journey, I became familiar with the tale of how an ancient pagan festival morphed and evolved thru several thousand years until it took the form we know today. Over several weeks my journey took me thru the forests of ancient Scandinavia, the streets of the Roman Empire, westward thru Europe and the Middle Ages, and across the Atlantic to the shores of America before arriving in the Victorian Era where the Christmas we all know took form.
Arriving at my historical destination, the next challenge was to recreate an authentic Victorian environment for the front half of the Farmstead. I knew the traditions and their history, now I just needed to recreate them. Thankfully, I was not the first to figure out decorating the Victorian Era house for a Victorian Era Christmas event was a good idea. An afternoon rummaging around unearthed an attic full of trees, tinsel, candles, and other goodies to make the rooms come alive with Christmas cheer. About a week in total spent decorating, and a few trips to local stores for the reaming pieces, completely transformed the house as if it were just adorned by the Cockayne’s themselves. However, little time could be spent admiring the handiwork as the real preparation for the event was just beginning.
While the house was decorated, I knew more needed to be offered than just house tours if we were to have a well attended event. After some thought, it was settled that live carolers and storytelling would perfectly round out the evening while the offer of hot coco and sweets was bound to (pun intended) sweeten the pot. Reaching out to area churches and, more importantly, school choral groups produced spectacular, if not speedy, results. Three groups were booked for the evening to provide a soothing atmosphere for the attendees. Lastly, our volunteer base answered the call to provide a storyteller and baked goods for the evening. With everything, theoretically, put together on paper it was time to spread the word and wait for the night of the event to take place.
Having marketed events before, advertising went out smoothly and the night of the event soon approached—and it was successful. Despite our last choral group bowing out due to a sick director, the night went off as planned. The house and grounds shone bright clothed in their Christmas regalia and the crowds flowed as expected. Visitors smiled while listening to the school groups perform outside before heading indoors to tour the house, listen to a resuscitation of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and craft an authentic Victorian Era ornament. While, not every aspect of the evening went exactly according to plan (for example junking the script for the house tour within the first 10 minutes), our little over 100 visitors were thoroughly entertained and left knowing the Farmstead is a vital part of the community. About two and a half hours after it started, it was finished. The evening event had ran its course, the house was put back into order, and it was time to move onto the next task. However, while the evening only lasted a handful of hours, its lessons and memories have lasted far longer.
While I don’t anticipate a career switch to event planning, the experience has reinforced that I’ve become proficient in this very necessary skill for small historic sites. Seeing all my research, planning, coordination, balancing, and advertising efforts pay off was another in a series of small revelations over the past several months that I have indeed stepped outside my comfort zone and gained skills that are against my own reclusive nature. In the end, that is what the AmeriCorps experience should all be about, and has for myself over the past two years. Serving with small organizations such as the Farmstead has forced me to tackle challenges that I normally wouldn’t and equipped me well for the next step of moving onto the larger stage of a fulltime career within the field of public history (whenever that is supposed to happen). And, if I manage to inspire some people along the way to pursue their own passion for history all the better. However, that is yet another story for yet another day.
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