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.