An 1800s Christmas | Kitsap Week

Vivian Williams and her husband, Phil, have played heritage music at past Mill Town events. - Gary Beanland / Kitsap County Historical Society
Vivian Williams and her husband, Phil, have played heritage music at past Mill Town events.
— image credit: Gary Beanland / Kitsap County Historical Society

When the hayride pulls up to the Meeting House at Seabeck Conference Center, visitors will have only traveled a short distance, but will find they have been transported back to an 1850s Christmas celebration.

“We are celebrating Christmas when it was a simpler time without a lot of glitz,” said Anita Williams, organizer for Mill Town Family Christmas.Back to a time before gift receipts or songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Back to a Christmas when it was a real treat to roast chestnuts and sing yuletide carols.

In its fourth year, the annual fundraiser for the Kitsap Historical Society draws people who wish to experience a less frantic, less commercial holiday celebration. Holding it in Seabeck, an old logging camp, incorporates history into the evening.

Instead of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the Kitsap Kickers will teach guests dances like the Virginia reel. If so inclined, folks are encouraged to dress like people did in the 1850s (give or take a few decades).

After dancing and socializing, the event will move to the dining room for an authentic pioneer, family-style Christmas feast, complete with roast beef, roasted root vegetables, homemade biscuits, clam chowder and berry desserts. Back in the day, the food served was seasonal and local. Oranges and lobsters weren’t trucked in from long distances.

After the meal, living history presenter Tames Alan will discuss examples of what Christmas was like in the 1850s. She’ll use three contrasting Christmas trees to illustrate her lesson.

The Victorian tree, with its glass ornaments and candles, represents what Christmas was like back in New York and Boston. They celebrated Christmas more lavishly than their relatives who headed west. Victorian trees were often adorned with popcorn or cranberries, a tradition that wasn’t continued out west. That’s food, for goodness sake!

And local fire marshals, fear not — this sample tree will not use real candles.  Many a home burned down from the candles on Christmas trees.   In the Midwest, a community tree was placed at the local church. These “giving trees,” as they were called, were decorated not with ornaments but with gifts sent from a sister church back east. A second-hand winter coat, for example, would be given to a child who had none.

In the plains, a Christmas tree might consist of a simple mesquite branch decorated with hair ribbons. Packaged under the tree would be handmade gifts like a pair of knitted socks.

“When you live in a one-room cabin that is not very big, trying to make gifts for your family without them knowing about it required a great deal of ingenuity,” Alan said. “Everything was handmade.”

If the man were a hunter, he would save antlers to carve into knife handles or buttons. Wives made shirts for their husbands using old flour sacks. And, glory be!, the entire family would rejoice over a gift of a new wooden chair.

“Think about the travel space these people had,” Alan said. “They couldn’t bring much with them.” After packing the required tools for the trip out west, there wasn’t ample room for extras.

Alan said the Christmas meal was often more important than the gifts. Families back east sent care packages of food to their pioneering relatives via the train. Unfortunately, heavy snows often delayed the trains, thus postponing the holiday meal. Sometimes families had to wait until March to receive their bounty. But because the food was stored in a non-insulated boxcar on the train, it stayed frozen and didn’t spoil. While telling her stories, Alan will be dressed in period-appropriate clothing depicting what a pioneer woman wore. She refers to herself as a one-woman show: she sews her own costumes (with the exception of her corsets and hats), researches the subject matter and writes her own scripts.

“My core mission in life is to teach tolerance,” she said. “I try to show people what life was like in another time — no matter how weird it seems to us — so they can have more tolerance for things that are different in their own lives.”

And what would people from the 1850s think of our Christmas celebrations today?

“Anyone coming from the mid to late 19th century would be amazed at the abundance we have,” Alan said. So in 160 years from now, how will folks celebrate a 2011 Christmas? It’s hard to say, but surely this year will go down in the history books as the year Black Friday began on Thursday.

Mill Town ChristmasWhen: Dec. 11, 4-8 p.m.Where: Seabeck Con-ference Center, 15395 Seabeck Highway NW, Seabeck. Tickets: $30 adults, $15 ages 4-12, free for children 3 and younger.Call: (360) 479-6226.


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