From the kitchens of Greenfield Village to yours at home, this year’s collection of Holiday Nights recipes are inspired by our own historic recipe bank. Try our 2020 recipes and then dig deeper into our online collection of historic recipes. Thanks to our supporting partners at Meijer for making this year’s recipe collection possible.
Card and text versions of the recipes follow, or access a high-res PDF, suitable for printing, of all four recipe cards here.
(Please Note: These recipes are taken from original historical resources and contain spellings and references that will be unfamiliar to today’s cooks. These were retained for accuracy and are explained where possible.)
Weigh out a pound of sugar, three-quarters pound butter, stir them to a cream, then add three beaten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a spoonful of extract of lemon and a pint of flour; dissolve a teaspoonful of saleratus [baking powder] in a teacup of milk, strain and mix it with half a teacup of cider and stir it into the cookies; then add flour to make them sufficiently stiff to roll out. Bake them as soon as cut into cakes in a quick oven [375-400º F] till light brown.
May Perrin Goff, Detroit Free Press Cook Book (The Household and Ladies Cyclopeadia), p. 43.
2 cups sugar 1 cup sweet milk ½ cup butter 3 cups Five Roses flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 5 eggs (whites)
Mix and beat well. Bake in deep square tin. Cut in 2 inch squares. Remove outside. Frost on all sides, then roll in freshly grated cocoanut.
Confectioner’s Frosting: Two tablespoons boiling water or cream and a little flavoring essence of vanilla, lemon, or almond. Add enough confectioner’s sugar to the liquid to make of right consistency to spread.
Lake of the Woods Milling Company Limited, The Five Roses Cook Book, 1915, p. 86, 121.
Take five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish wine, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges, grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of double-refined sugar well beat and sifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses: these will keep about a week, and are better made the day before. The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate-mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in: it is both quicker done, and the froth stronger; for the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf’s-foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf’s-foot boiled to a hard jelly; when cold take off the fat, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear which you saved of the syllabubs; sweeten it to your palate, and give it a boil, then pour it into basins, or what you please: when cold, turn it out, and it is a fine flummery.
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796, p. 179-80.
One and a half pounds of wheat flour, quarter of a pound of butter, one pint of molasses, one pint of brown sugar, ten eggs, ginger to the taste, one teaspoonful of pearlash [1/2 tsp. baking soda] dissolved in warm water; stir all together, and bake in pans or patties. Currants and raisins may be added.
Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847, p. 198.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights
What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.
The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.
Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439
The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.
Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738
By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.
In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered. Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.
By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.
Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736
The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002 for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.
Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593
During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.
A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.
The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.
Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.
Making Christmas ornaments in Henry Ford Museum, Christmas Eve 1986.
Earlier this month I was sent this blog post from Target showcasing some of their holiday ads from the past 60 years. From Christmas tree-filled print ads to YouTube-ready TV commercials, the post was a hit with many of my co-workers here at The Henry Ford.
The post got me thinking to some of my favorite holiday memories of THF. Growing up in southeastern Michigan, my parents were (and still are) proud members of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. One of our Christmas traditions every year was to visit the museum on Christmas Eve. We looked forwarded to making ornaments, adding our names to the huge visitor paper chain and, of course, taking our family picture by the Christmas tree.
As I thought about my favorite memories here, I wondered what kind of holiday programming memorabilia we had in our collections? Turns out, there's quite a bit!
Take a look at just a few samples of holiday programming from over the years at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Greenfield Museum in 1964 were treated to "period decorations" for the first time. What could guests expect as they toured the Village? From this 1964 pamphlet:
Appropriate Christmas decorations, authenticated in each instance by careful research, have been installed in the 17th-century Cotswold Cottage, the 18th-century Secretary House, and the 19th-century Noah Webster House, Wright Homestead, and Ford Homestead, as well as in the Clinton Inn and the Martha-Mary Chapel. These buildings will be highlights of the regular guided tours during the holidays.
In the mood to learn more about crafting? Henry Ford Museum was the place for you during Christmas 1976! During the holiday season guests could learn about toymaking, counted thread embroidery, lace making, crewel embroidery, Christmas card painting, quilting, tinsmithing, broom making, candle making, glass blowing, weaving, doll making, cookie baking, basket making AND tole painting. Phew!
Need to know more about what was going on in the museum that year? Dial the Village Party Line!
In the 1980s, visitors enjoyed "Yuletide Evenings" in Greenfield Village, complete with sleigh ride tours and dinner inside Eagle Tavern.
While you might not think of a safari when you first think of the museum, children were definitely on the lookout with Santa in 1986 thanks to this holiday scavenger hunt. Chances are pretty good that I was one of those kids!
In the 1990s, the holidays were all about being a "unique event" in the museum and Village.
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 Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve ever been to Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, you know what a massive event it is, with performances, shopping, dining, bonfires, Santa and his reindeer, and even fireworks. What you might not know is that every year we add hundreds of artifacts, including toys, silverware, and china, from our vast collections to the houses to lend some authentic Christmastime cheer. We’ve recently digitized a few of the toys you’ll see during Holiday Nights this year, including this set of puzzle blocks on display at Susquehanna Plantation. If you’re visiting us this year, you can also keep your eyes peeled for this toy horse, toy lamb, and toy stork at Smiths Creek Depot. If you can’t get enough toys, our collections website currently features nearly 500.
If you’ve visited the Ford Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, you’ve no doubt felt your mouth water as you gazed upon the beautiful Charlotte Russe cake on the Fords’ dining room table. The cake has been a must-bake dessert for us for years and a guest favorite. Beyond knowing that it’s pretty in appearance and tastes heavenly, what do you know about this centuries-old dessert?
A Charlotte Russe is a hot or cold cake with a filling of fruit and custards formed in a molded pan; if you had to select a similar dessert, a trifle would be your best bet. Invented by French chef Antonin Carême in the 1800s, the cake was named in honor of George IV’s daughter Princess Charlotte and then-employer Czar Alexander. You can learn more about Anontonin in Ian Kelly’s book, “Cooking for Kings.”
By the late 1800s the cake had made its way to American tables, like that of the Fords. This layered cake would have been a very fancy presentation during the holidays and could have contained a number of fruit/filling combinations. In the colder months when fresh fruit wasn’t as available, families could have added preserved fruits and jams to make up the filling and stored it in a cellar to set. For a family living on a farm, all the ingredients you’d need were most likely in your backyard and in your pantry.
By the early 20th century, a variation of the Charlotte Russe became very popular as a street food in Brooklyn. The larger cake was scaled down to an individual size and presented in a push-up-pop fashion.
Today, the Charlotte Russe is limited only by your imagination and ingredients on hand. Molds can be found in antique stores or online. While the Fords might have filled their cake with strawberries or other preserves, how does a strawberry-kiwi-grape Charlotte Russe sound?! Pretty tasty, if you ask us.
Try making your own Charlotte Russe at home and let us know how you make it your own. Need more inspiration? Use the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink,” a favorite resource among staff at The Henry Ford, for ideas, or visit Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights.
2 tablespoons gelatin 1 cup sweet milk 1 cup cream 2 eggs (separated) 2 teaspoons vanilla ½ cup granulated sugar
Beat egg yolks thoroughly with ½ cup granulated sugar. Heat 1 cup milk. When hot, add gelatin and mix until dissolved. Cool down some and strain through colander into egg/sugar mixture. Flavor with vanilla. Whip 1 cup cream; fold into egg/milk mixture. Put a thin layer of jam or jelly on the bottom of the mold. Cut sponge cake into pieces to fit mold. Fill the center with custard. Harden in refrigerator.
Sponge Cake for Charlotte Russe
3 eggs 2 teaspoons cream of tartar 1 lemon 1 teaspoon soda 1 ½ cups powdered sugar 2 cups sifted flour ½ cup cold water
Mix together sifted flour, cream of tartar and soda. Grease a dripping pan. Separate the eggs. Set egg whites aside. In a separate bowl, add powdered sugar to egg yolks. Beat thoroughly. Squeeze half a lemon and add juice to ½ cup of water; add to sugar/yolk mixture. Beat egg whites to a froth; stir into egg and sugar mixture. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Stir without beating only long enough to get the flour well mixed. Pour into the pan and bake in a moderate oven.
Pick up everything you need to make these recipes at Meijer. For more recipes and inspiration, visit THF OnLiving.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
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.