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Festivus for the Rest of Us

The holiday season is upon us and in the museum/public history world it can be a challenging time. Do you decorate for Christmas? What about Hanukkah? Or Kwanzaa? Then there is programming. What kind of December programming is appropriate?  A lot of these questions might already be answered for you if your institution is administered by a public entity such as a state, county or city. But for those of us who are in the non-profit world, December can bring some tricky propositions.

As private non-profit organizations, your mission should be your ultimate litmus test whether it is holiday recognitions or just day to day operations. Your strategic plan focuses your efforts toward achieving your mission and provides specific goals to work toward. I know that in my organization which has too few people for the myriad of needs that are to be met, the strategic plan helps everyone know where to apply limited resources.

But how, you say, does one look at a mission statement of a historical organization and come away knowing what do to for the holidays? Of course, you could just say, “it’s the holiday season people expect festive decorations and fun activities so what does it matter that it doesn’t serve the mission, it’s just once a year.” Maybe, like Colonial Williamsburg, your historic site has been doing the same type thing every year and if you deign to change it a hue and cry would arise from the public. (Who, by the way, may never darken your door at any other time of the year.)

This question occurred to me recently when I was visiting Colonial Williamsburg. There, buildings are decorated for Yuletide using natural materials. Evergreen wreaths are adorned with dried flowers and berries, swags are studded with oranges, door lintels are festooned with pineapples and pomegranates. There are whole fruit salads on the front of every house. And the visitors eat it up – not literally. (Honestly who would want to eat fruit that has florist’s wire jabbed through it and has been out in the damp and or freezing weather for weeks?) The tradition as it has come to be does not have roots in colonial holiday customs. They preferred to eat their fruit not hang it on their front door. It dates back to the earliest days of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s and speaks more about the Colonial Revival than actual colonial history.  For a good article about this go to http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/dec_doors.cfm

But woe to anyone who would suggest going toward a more historically accurate and for the most part austere decorating scheme. The thousands of visitors who travel every year to see the wreaths, roping and swags and who take part in special guided walking tours, purchase ready-made examples for their own homes and acquire special stands to make towers of apples for the centers of their tables would be scandalized. It would also mean a big hit in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s wallet. After all the money spent in its stores, expended for tour tickets and hotel rooms all go to support some exceptionally good historical research and interpretation.

So does the end justify the means? Should we as non-profits cater to the public’s expectations for the holidays if it is ahistorical or misleading? Should we provide activities which do little to advance our organization’s mission but get people in the door in hopes of either a return visit or more importantly, to foster the feeling that the institution is a critical part of the community? If it is ok for the holiday season, where do you draw the line during the rest of the year?

I've been making my way in the public history and museum fields for the past couple of decades and hold history degrees from Kent State and Slippery Rock Universities. Currently, I am Director & Chief Curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, DC and, on occasion, I teach museum studies, public history and history courses at Hood College in Frederick, MD.

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7 comments on “Festivus for the Rest of Us
  1. Heidi,

    Thanks for this post.

    At my job we used to have a hodge podge Christmas program which I refer to as “cider and cookies Christmas programs.” These generally include hot apple cider, chocolate chip and/or sugar cookies, and some notation of Christmas of by-gone years. Christmas trees and Santa Claus are included even if inappropriate to the time period or place specific. I think they harken people’s mindsets of “good ol’ days.”

    As an interpreter or visitor, I do not like “cider and cookies programs.” They do not tell people enough about how people celebrated holidays in the past. I reckon this mindset can extend to July 4th programs. I have never been to a historic site where Jewish people were the primary interpretive focus during Hanukkah (so I don’t know what types of things those sites may be up to).

    I started doing a Christmas program at the historic plantation that is a part of my site back in 2007. I repeated the program in 2009. I researched the people who were in the house around Christmas, 1858. I looked to see what the enslaved people who lived on the plantation could expect to receive or not receive that year. I researched what their lives were like before December 1858. Information was given to the volunteers and we had several guided tours for the public.

    This year I focused the program on Christmastime, 1861. We had to make some educated guesses but I still was pleased and the public was filled with questions.

    However, we no longer include a Christmas tree (since the family who owned the place did not have one in their home until Christmas 1866). We do not have a Santa Claus. We are barred from serving the public food anyway so luckily that battle was fought before I started working.

    I have had people who used to go to the hodge podge program which included civilians, soldiers, and cider and cookies (really) and Santa and Christmas trees. However, they were extremely complimentary of the programs I have organized which have an interpretive focus to show what it meant to be enslaved and what it meant to own slaves in the antebellum and wartime South.

    I think those of us, like you and me, who practice public history, owe it to the historical record to let visitors see as best as possible what it was like to live in the past and holidays should not derail us from our interpretive messages. Others milage I know varies but that’s how I feel and I try to structure my programs to show that people had fun but to also get folks to understand that the “good ol’ days” were not always good.

  2. John H. Verrill says:

    This problem hounded me when I was the director of an historic house museum. We fought great battles over what Christmas was like for the inhabitants of the circa 1800 house, usually the Colonial Revivalists won for the very reasons that you elicited. It is a challenge that most historic sites must deal with, personally I think we are doing a disservice to the public as the rest of the year we try to be accurate purveyors of history and at Christmas time we fall into a pit of inaccurate interpretation.

  3. Justina says:

    Amen!

    We get 1/3 of our visitors in December for our hodge-podge, garden-club decorated, ahistorical holiday tours into our colonial and early American houses.
    What I really want to do next year is wassail and sweetmeats. Not a tour, no busses, no decorations (other than the food) and a higher priced ticket. Fewer visitors, more accuracy, hopefully more revenues.

  4. Sandy Mackenzie Lloyg says:

    Historic Philadelphia, Inc runs a popular Tipplers’ Tour which is essentially a fun pub crawl led by a Revolutionary War-era historic character in period dress. Characters include Robert Hare (a brewer and member of the First City Troop) and Samuel Nicholas (founder of the Marines and tavern owner). The organization wanted to do a “holiday” version of the tour. As the historian I said, hmmmmmmm as December “holidays” would not have been part of Hare’s and Nicholas’s life in ways that modern folks would appreciate. Soooooo. We devised an alternative. Instead of American soldiers leading folks around, we created a holiday tour which features British soldiers with the time frame being December 1777 when the Brits occupied Philadelphia. This offered a fresh thing to offer to the public, the red uniforms are REALLY festive (!), and we used it as a way to speak to British traditions — the wassail approach which Justina mentioned. We also focused on welcoming in the new year. The tour has proved very popular and this strategy helped keep the history a bit better in the holiday category, offered some new and not well-known history, all while providing a little holiday fun complete with beer and wassail, courtesy of our partner pubs (the Omni, National Mechanics, Triumph, and City Tavern).

  5. Sandy Mackenzie Lloyd says:

    It would be nice if I spelled my last name right! Hope everyone has a fun holiday season…

  6. Thanks everyone for the great feedback. Sandy, it sounds like you have a winner of a program there. It takes a little effort but connecting history with “fun” activites can be done. Not to say that history in and of itself isn’t fun – we all got involved in it because we enjoyed it.

    But I think you will agree that we are fighting against the dry as dust and the little grey haired ladies having tea and cookies perceptions people have. It is an ongoing challenge not just at the holidays, to provide programs that are attractive to the general public while still remaining true to the mission. My general history museum is housed in an 1820s mansion which poses a whole other set of challenges which I might talk about in a later post. But one of my staff overheard during our holiday program our longtime volunteers (and former board member) posit that the house would look wonderful if decorated for a victorian Christmas. It is this kind of comment that makes you say (a la Charlie Brown) UUUUUgh! It also shows you that the most diligent training and information will not reach everyone but that doesn’t mean you give up or give in. Persistence and accomplish much.

  7. As a Lenape descendent and Cultural Educator, I provide programs, workshops and exhibits on Lenape and Native American topics. I spend December explaining that the Lenape people and Native Americans did not have Christmas to celebrate. This gives me the opportunity to share both Native cultures and Native world views in a positive manner.

    Carla

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