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Historic Mansion Provides Backdrop for 18th Century Christmas


As western countries go, the United States of America does not have a whole lot of history -- just 229 years between the day the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and today. But maybe that is why some Americans take their history so seriously. VOA recently caught up with a group of historical re-enactors who were celebrating what they called "Christmas in the Colonies."

The Van Cortlandt House is a large and stately stone manor that sits - appropriately enough - in the heart of Van Cortlandt Park - the third-largest park in New York City. The manor was built in 1748 by Frederick Van Cortlandt, the patriarch of a prominent Dutch mercantile family.

Tonight, the manor is all decked out for Christmas. Wreaths of fresh greenery adorn the windows. Decorated fruits sit on the mantelpieces above every fireplace. Each room is illuminated by the warm glow of candles. And the entire house smells of "orange shrub," a rum punch that was very popular in the British colonies in the 18th century.

A tall young man stands in the dining room corner. "I am the Duke of Clarence," he tells visitors, his accent like nothing you would hear coming from a native-born American today. "The would-be king of England in, give or take 20 years… as it is 1780… I should think about now."

His real name is John Kish, 19. He is a college student who's studying theater and history at the State University of New York. Tonight, Mr. Kish is dressed in breeches and a wool coat - his head adorned with the blue, "bicorn" hat worn by British naval officers in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He is here to add a little historical 'color' to the annual "Christmas in the Colonies" tour organized by officials at the Van Cortlandt House Museum.

Tour guide David Kappes leads a group of people up a creaky set of stairs to the third floor of the house. The visitors are here to learn about how Christmas was celebrated nearly two and a half centuries ago - before America was its own country.

"There were no Christmas trees here," Mr. Kappes tells them. "The first documented Christmas tree was at the College of William and Mary (in Virginia) in 1842. You went to church, you came back home, you had a dinner," he says. "Except in the New England colonies, especially the Massachusetts Bay colonies. For 22 years, Christmas was outlawed. You could not go to church on Christmas unless it fell on a Sunday. You worked."

That is because the Puritans who lived in New England based their faith strictly on the Bible - and nowhere in that book does it say Christ was born on December 25th.

Indeed, it turns out many of the commonly-held traditions and beliefs about Christmas really are not that old. The giving of Christmas gifts, for example - which seems to consume so much time, energy, and money at this time of year - was practically unheard of in colonial America. And when gifts were given, they were always simple, practical, and hand-made.

The educational co-ordinator for the Van Cortland House Museum is Michael Grillo. He says he organizes "living history" tours like this one - where people dress up in period-clothing, sing period-songs and eat period-food, because he wants Americans to know their history and to understand just how fascinating it can be.

"I remember, as a child, going to different museums, where you have the elderly docent (i.e. tour guide) there, giving a tour of the house and talking about the furniture, and what year they were from," he recalls, "And I was more interested in, 'But how did these people live?' This is not just a museum. It was somebody's home."

Mr. Grillo says Christmas is an especially good time of year to teach people about the past, because nowadays, the holiday season can be very hectic and stressful, and many people enjoy learning that it doesn't have to be that way.

The slower pace of the 18th century is one of the reasons Vivian Davis became a historical re-enactor. She says it is nice to retreat from modern America every now and then.

"Things were more plain and more to the point, perhaps," she explains. "No commercialism, and it makes us slow down quite a bit and enjoy the season in a simpler way with people we enjoy being with."

One of the people Vivian Davis enjoys being with is her 16-year-old daughter -- also named Vivian - who plays the harpsichord for people who come to the house. That is one of the nice things about historical re-enactment, according to the people who do it. It is an activity the entire family can participate in.