The American celebration of the holiday season (Christmas and New Year's) has evolved over several centuries and today offers us a wide range of customs and practices. Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village embraces many of these historical traditions and brings them to life 14 evenings in December each year.
One interesting custom, now most associated with New Year’s Eve, was the “shooting in of Christmas.” In the decades just prior to the Civil War, both urban and rural Americans took part in similar activities on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's. All these activities had the same goal in mind - making as much noise as possible. In rural areas, which made up much of what was the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s, guns were the noise makers of choice. Either as an individual, shooting to make their presence known, or as a gang roaming from farm to farm shooting a coordinated volley just outside an unfortunate’s occupant’s window, bringing in the holiday as loudly as possible was met with much enthusiasm.
In urban areas these activities were even more intensified. For instance, in 1848 it was noted that in Pittsburgh “the screams of alarmed ladies, as some young rogue discharges his fire crackers at their feet” augmented the din created by “juvenile artillerists” who have invaded that city at Christmas time. “Wretched is now the youngest who cannot raise powder; and proud, indeed, is the warlike owner of a pistol…”* All manner of home-made explosive devices, including crude rockets, flares, and roman candles were highly prized and used in great abundance to welcome the holiday.
The larger-scale firework displays we are more familiar with today have origins in the 18th century and “illuminations” involving large bonfires and aerial fireworks were popular in London for special celebrations throughout that century. They became popular in America even before the American Revolution and through the end of the 18th century and well into the mid-19th century, marking special occasions well beyond just the Fourth of July. Today, this tradition of making noise has been relegated to New Year’s Eve.
During Holiday Nights, we celebrate the finale of each evening with a fireworks display.
* Restad, Penne L., Christmas in America, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1995, pp.39-40.
Jim Johnson is Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.
It lasted only nine years, from 1953 to 1961. Yet, many long-time Dearborn residents remember the Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy with nostalgia and a fierce sense of pride. After all, this great extravaganza of all things Christmas was staged in their own community by the company that Henry Ford—their favorite hometown-boy-made-good—had founded.
What was the Christmas Fantasy and why was it so memorable? The story starts back in 1934, at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
When Henry Ford decided that his company needed to have a showy building at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition, he turned to Albert Kahn, his favorite architect. Kahn had designed Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Rouge Plant, and the classically-styled Dearborn Inn. But, for this exposition building, Kahn broke completely from traditional architectural styles and designed an imposing cylindrical structure that simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears.
By the time the Century of Progress Exposition closed its doors in 1934, Henry Ford decided that the central gear-shaped structure would be perfect for displaying industrial exhibits back home in Dearborn. He intended to re-erect the structure in Greenfield Village, but his son Edsel persuaded him that it would serve a far better purpose as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours. The newly named Ford Rotunda found a suitable home near the Rouge Plant, across from the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road.
In 1953, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Ford Motor Company executives decided to give the Rotunda and its exhibits a complete renovation. The new industrial exhibits and changing car displays were popular. But its biggest draw became the annual Christmas Fantasy.
A Walk through the Christmas Fantasy
Just inside the entrance to the Rotunda, the holiday mood was immediately set by an enormous live Christmas tree. This 35-foot-tall tree glistened with thousands of colored electric lights.
Stretching along one wall was the display of more than 2,000 dolls, dressed by members of the Ford Girls’ Club. These would later be distributed by the Goodfellows to underprivileged children.
The Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy became perhaps best known for its elaborate animated scenes. These were created by Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company of Chicago, who specialized in department store window displays. Santa’s Workshop—an early and ongoing display—featured a group of tiny elves working along a moving toy assembly line.
Over the years, these scenes became ever-more numerous and elaborate. Life-size storybook figures like Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood, Wee Willie Winkie, and Humpty Dumpty pivoted back and forth in atmospheric Christmas and winter settings. In 1957, two animated scenes were added to the doll display: a Beauty Shop, where two beauty-operator elves “glamorized” a pair of dolls and a Dress Salon in which mechanical elves operated a sewing machine and iron. More displays were added in 1958. In the Pixie Candy Kitchen, animated workers turned out large chocolate-covered delicacies. A Bake Shop featured animated bakers kneading dough, trimming pies, mixing cakes, and baking bread and cookies. An animated fiddler and banjo player accompanied a group of square-dancing elves in a barn dance scene. In 1960, jungle animals in cages with peppermint-stick bars joined the other animated scene
An “outstanding new attraction” in 1958 was the 15,000-piece miniature animated circus, created as a hobby over a 16-year period by John Zweifel, from Evanston, Illinois. This hand-carved circus came complete with performing animals, a circus train, sideshow attractions, carnival barkers, and bareback riders. Larger-size animated circus animals and a clown band provided the backdrop for this popular attraction.
In the Rotunda’s walled-off inner court, the mood became more reverent. At the entrance to this court, visitors passed through a cathedral façade, with carillon music ringing from 40-foot spires. Inside the court was a Nativity scene with life-size figures. During an era in which stores and other businesses were closed on Sundays, this scene was considered “so beautifully and reverently executed” that the Detroit Council of Churches allowed Ford Motor Company to keep the Christmas Fantasy open on Sundays during the Christmas season. An organ set alongside the Nativity scene provided Christmas music while Detroit-area choral groups gave concerts here periodically.
Of course, visiting Santa was a highly anticipated activity for children at the Rotunda. Santa awaited each eager child high up inside a colorful multi-story castle, accessible by a curved ramp.
Finally, a visit to the Christmas Fantasy was not complete without a viewing of Christmas cartoons in the Rotunda’s newly renovated auditorium and a stop to see Santa’s live reindeer.
Up in Flames
Tragically, the Ford Rotunda burned down on November 9, 1962, when a waterproofing sealant of hot tar accidentally caught the roof on fire. The intense heat caused the building to collapse and burn to the ground in less than an hour. Fortunately, a wing housing the Ford Motor Company Archives survived.
Most of the already-installed Christmas Fantasy became a charred ruin. The doll display and miniature circus had not arrived yet. To help local residents come to terms with this tragic loss, Ford Motor Company invited the public to a tree-lighting ceremony that year in front of its Central Office Building on Michigan Avenue (now Ford World Headquarters). A Press Release for the event announced that Santa would be on hand to turn on the 70,000 lights that decorated the 75-foot Christmas tree—the tallest tree they could find for the occasion.
The Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy was never revived. But it lives on in vivid memory to the many people who had seen it. In fact, to hear long-time Dearbornites talk about it, you’d think that it had happened only yesterday!
Check out this short film to catch a glimpse of the 1955 Rotunda Christmas Fantasy.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve visited Henry Ford Museum, you may know that Corning Glass Works’ patented ribbon machines manufactured incandescent bulb blanks faster than ever before. But did you know that these machines could also mass-produce Christmas ornaments?
By the 1950s, a retrofitted glass ribbon machine at Corning’s Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant could turn out 1,000 glass ornament bulbs per minute! Read on to discover how a bit of innovative engineering, a world war, and some prodding from industry leaders helped Corning become America’s primary glass ornament supplier. (To see our 1928 Corning Glass Ribbon Machine, look here.)
Americans flirted with imported glass Christmas tree ornaments before the Civil War, and by the 1890s, it seemed they were in love. European artisans turned out huge quantities of shiny glass ornaments for the American market—glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany produced 600 ornaments per day! The affair even outlasted the blockades and embargoes of World War I, although American consumers nearly exhausted huge quantities of German ornaments stockpiled before the war. A few domestic manufacturers tried, but could never quite master the intricate glassblowing techniques or silvered lacquers that made European ornaments so popular. As postwar production ramped up overseas in the 1920s, European imports grew to 99% of the 50 to 80 million ornaments sold in the United States each year.
Stateside importers and retailers had a great deal to lose should anything impede the lucrative European-American ornament trade. One major stakeholder was the F.W. Woolworth Company. F.W. Woolworth first imported European glass ornaments in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, consumers depended on Woolworth stores nationwide for their yearly Christmas decorations. Max Eckardt, a German immigrant, also relied on the success of the ornament industry. Eckardt—who began importing ornaments around 1907, opened his own German ornament factory in 1926, and oversaw product distribution from his offices in New York City—had extensive knowledge of the German-American Christmas trade. In the late 1930s, as World War II rumbled ominously on the European horizon, he set out to secure the future of his ornament business on American soil.
In the summer of 1939, just as an Allied blockade of threatened to sever the German ornament supply, Eckardt and a representative from F.W. Woolworth Company visited Corning Glass Works, a large American glass manufacturer headquartered in New York. Corning had only experimented briefly with ornament manufacture before this meeting, but the two businessmen urged the company to begin full-scale production. It was a calculated choice—the company owned high-speed ribbon machine technology that could be converted to mass-produce ornament bulbs. Armed with this patented machinery and the promise of large orders from Eckardt and Woolworth, Corning agreed to enter the glass ornament business. Within a few months, Corning Glass Works was manufacturing more than half of the Christmas tree decorations sold in the United States.
Wartime Ornament Decoration
Though Corning converted just one ribbon machine to manufacture ornament bulbs, production was staggering. In 1940, Corning produced 40,000,000 clear glass ornament bulbs at its Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant. About 1/3 of these were decorated in-house. The remainder was sold to outside decorating companies.
The first domestically-produced ornaments mimicked European imports. The inside of each bulb received a coat of silver lacquer; the outside was tinted with colored dye. Then, after any desired hand decoration, the shiny baubles were topped with tight metal caps.
But in 1941, when the United States entered World War II, decorators were forced to rethink the American ornament. Popular lacquers became impossible to import, and most metals were diverted to the war effort. Despite material restrictions and wartime shortages, many innovative companies used available paints, sprays of tinsel, and even cardboard to decorate ornaments throughout the war.
Max Eckardt, who’d been instrumental in securing blank bulbs from Corning for his four New Jersey decorating plants before the war, produced some of the most popular domestic ornaments under the name Shiny Brite. Examples of Shiny Brite ornaments from The Henry Ford’s collection document the development of American ornaments through World War II.
I survived a beautiful night that included fireside chats, reindeer, tasty food, lantern lit walkways, historic goodness, Christmas carolers and ice-skating.
I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Based on the fact that Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village has sold out most nights during this year’s annual program, I’m not alone.
From experience, I can share a few survival tactics to help others make the most of the event. It took me a while to get it right, maybe because the weather changes the experience so much. It’s winter – in Michigan. (I don’t think I need to add much to that.)
Tip one: Dress to stay warm and dry
We’ve attended the event in temperate weather – running around with coats open and hats off. We’ve also survived some pretty freezing weather decked out in snow pants and facemasks, scurrying from house to house eager to warm frosty noses and icy toes.
This year, a misty rain greeted us early in the night, but it was gone soon enough. I closed my umbrella shortly after arrival and didn’t touch it again. Outside of a little extra mud, it was very comfortable.
Staying warm and dry is key to enjoying the event. I’ve often told my older girls that cozy wins over cute. (That’s not always an easy adage for teenage girls when their vision of strolling through the fire-lit village doesn’t generally include two pair of socks, snow pants and long johns. Or – oh no – when last year’s warm gloves don’t match this year’s new coat.) But it’s a long event, and there’s so much to do. It’s one thing to be warm for an hour or so, but Holiday Nights is a three-and-a-half hour gig.
Fortunately, there are many warming fires throughout the village. They’re great for relieving the chill, and meeting and greeting other visitors to the event.
Tip two: Arrive early
There’s so much to do at Holiday Nights, we like to arrive early with a plan. We used try see every element of the night – visit each house, workshop, etc. However, now that the kids are older, they want to DO everything at Holiday Nights. That means skating, wagon rides, carousel rides. Even our youngest wants into the action, and sitting in a stroller isn’t much of an option.
When the event is sold out, there can be some waiting involved. The lines for rides on horse-drawn wagons, Model Ts and the carousel (turning to the tune of Christmas carols) were somewhat lengthy during our visit. (That’s another reason to dress warmly.)
Upon our arrival this year, we headed directly to the skating rink since that was a top priority for everyone. I confess, I didn’t actually skate this time, but I enjoyed watching our children don the borrowed blades and make their attempts. It was a first try for our six-year-old, and she enjoyed it thoroughly. Near the end of the night, three of the kids went back for a second visit to the ice.
Tip three: Bring your appetite
There are some great concession stands to add flavor to the night. There’s nothing quite like standing outside eating a hot fire-roasted beef sandwich smothered in caramelized onions. Or roasted chestnuts. Or steaming stew. Or any of the other yummy delights special to the event. We grabbed a cup of hot cocoa at the same place we usually grab a cool summertime treat, since frozen the custard stand was converted for more appropriate cold-weather fare. We’ve never done the dinner package at Eagle Tavern (which sells out lickety split). Maybe someday we’ll make that happen.
Tip four: Visit Santa
Whether you have children with you or not, it’s quite a joy just standing back watching the reactions of little ones as Santa calls their names from atop the balcony of the Stephen Foster house. We made a sweet memory again this year, since our littlest is three and just ripe for the fun magic of Santa.
Just before I caught up with my family to see Santa, my husband texted me that old jolly guy had just aided in a marriage proposal.
Where was I? Our oldest daughter needed a band-aid, so I sought out security to get one. While I was waiting for a band-aid, my family was ooh-ing and ahh-ing with folks privy to the event. I unsuccessfully tried to track down the newly promised couple - after the fact - with hopes of snapping a photo, but I was met with conflicting reports from my apparently not-too-observant entourage.
Tip five: Bring bandages
See tip four. (Bah humbug.)
Tip six: Stay late
Even in the cold, there’s nothing bitter about the end of this sweet night out. A Christmas carol sing-a-long with fireworks is just the perfect icing for a great time and a fitting finale to a night that always makes me feel I’ve stepped inside a classic Currier and Ives Christmas illustration … but with the added bonus of glitter.
Mummer may be the word, but if you ask my three-year-old, it’s a little more like “freaky.” He shied away from the costumed men parading in down Main Street during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. He asked me if the men suited in traditional Mummer-finery thought it was Halloween. (I think his exact words were: “What the? Halloween?”)
Mummers and the practice of Mummering were popular through the mid 1800s in the northeastern United States. Although the custom has ancient origins, most of the men participating in the pageantry in the U.S. weren’t aware of that fact, according to Jim Johnson, who is senior manager of creative programs at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
Young men in villages dressed in costumes and masks, and went door to door. They would sing and dance, ask for food and drink, and if they weren’t given any, they’d come in and take it. Costumes were elaborate, often outlandish and grotesque, and to add to the fun, people pretended they didn't recognize each other.
Jim said that it was a practice primarily among the lower class, and a premise of the activity was role and class reversal.
Mummering reached a pinnacle in the years before the Civil War, but at that time, Christmas in general was celebrated very differently compare with what we know of the holiday today. In some areas of the country, it was a rather raucous holiday celebrated by men taking to the streets.
“If someone from that era was dropped into today's New Year's Eve celebrations in larger cities - with people gathering and shouting in the streets - they would indeed recognize that kind of holiday celebration,” Jim explained.
Mummering died out before it made its way to Michigan. “By the time we were celebrating Christmas here - Mummering was something that was not a part of it,” Jim said.
The costumes worn by the Mummers in Greenfield Village are inspired by
illustrations and written accounts from the middle 1800s. Jim shared the above
image of costumed paraders marching; it’s from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,
Jan. 18, 1862.
To get a flavor of the fun and spectacle of the custom, the description from the paper offers more detail of the practice and of the dress donned by the participating Mummers:
The 44th New York was encamped around Hall's Hill in present-day Arlington. The men found an interesting way to celebrate the holiday by organizing "a burlesque parade":
All of the officers gave over their commands to the men. Bob Hitchcock, a member of the band, whose avoirdupois was about 300 pounds, was duly promoted and mustered as Colonel of the parade. He was dressed in a manner becoming his high rank. He was mounted upon a horse that surpassed in inferiority the famous Rozinante [Don Quixote's horse]. He rode with his face turned toward the horse's tail so that he might at all times watch his command. The horse was embellished with a pair of trousers on his fore legs, and a pair of drawers on his hind legs. . . The men were uniformed in most dissimilar and fantastic garbs. As a whole the rank and file easily surpassed Falstaff and his famous command. The commands given and the manner of their execution were unprecedented and quaint. The tactics of Scott, Hardee and Casey would be searched in vain to find precedent for those impromptu evolutions. The dress parade which followed was unique in its dissimilarity from anything promulgated in army regulations. No words can describe it. Frank Leslie's Illustrated paper only faintly depicted a short section of it but it lingers in the memory like a bright spot in that winter's experience of army life. (Nash 56.)
You can see the cage-like skirt on the Greenfield Village Mummer on the right was inspired by the 1862 illustration.
Mummer costumes were creatively made with whatever household materials available. The gentleman pictured above uses a quilt for a cape.
Inspired by the rowdy reputation of Mummers of days gone by, the village masqueraders boldly address visitors to Holiday Nights and aren’t the least bit camera shy for those who want to take home a souvenir of their encounter.
Philadelphia still honors the Mummering tradition with an annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade – the oldest folk parade in the country. The glamorous and elaborate costumes for the parade have evolved greatly and bear little resemblance to the historic Mummer costumes represented at Greenfield Village.