Historic Holidays without Tiny Tim
By Catherine Hughes
Conner Prairie bestows longevity on its popular annual events. There are several now well into their third decade, like the ever popular Headless Horseman Festival in October. Among these, the venerable Conner Prairie by Candlelight has offered visitors since 1982 insight into how people viewed the notion of Christmas in the early 19th century. Each December since, groups of 15-20 guests have promenaded through Prairietown homes on December 24, 1836, hearing the stories of recent immigrants to the frontier and the traditions they have brought with them. For many years, these stories were exclusively white and Christian. The religious overtones were obvious, but from the beginning, it was the intention of the program developers to show that the inhabitants of the town were not in agreement as to how this event should be recognized. The secular versus the religious among them attempt to persuade attendants to their view. It was a purposeful narrative, scripted to reveal the diversity of beliefs.
Cranky Mr. Fenton spews the righteousness of his Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian faith. He knows the Bible very well, and believes there just isn't any justification for pagan celebrations, such as those Dr. Campbell is offering that evening at his soiree. On the other hand, the Curtis family has brought with them from New York the Knickerbocker History and the legends of Washington Irving, and they share a reading of “The Children’s Friend” who arrives on Christmas Eve. German immigrant and Inn owner, Mrs. Zimmerman and sons bring Belznichol to life, along with a reading of Jesus’s birth from the book of Luke. Meanwhile, Ezra Higbee and several other rowdies celebrate with raucous songs and stories around a fire. The store owner Mr. Whitaker muses to his wife on the future of consumerism if the day is made a holiday across the nation. Generations of guests have joined in the fun each year. It’s not uncommon to hear a grandparent telling a young child of how they brought the child’s parent when they were young.
There have been changes through the years. In 1997, a scene portraying Hannah and Shemu’el Ullman, a Jewish couple emigrating from Germany, was added and immediately received positive comments from guests. This scene continues to receive consistent high praise. The Ullmans represent a new immigrant group to Indiana. They were headed to Rising Sun to join a relative who had gone before them, but got lost on the National Road and broke a wagon wheel near Prairietown, forcing them to spend several nights there until it was fixed. The Ullmans share the story of Chanukkah.
In 2016, a scene at the School House was adapted to include a new character, Christmas Guilford, who has recently arrived in Indiana from Philadelphia. She is a free African-American woman following her brother to a newly created farming community of free people of color nearby, the Roberts Settlement. Again, we heard from guests their appreciation for another perspective of the holiday season. Christmas, so named for her date of birth, is also keen to look over the school house as a model for the school she hopes to set up in the Settlement.
Choices about the programming elements have been made according to the historic record, as well as popular demand and contemporary concerns, such as diversity and inclusion. When holiday programming first began around 1979, it featured wreaths and familiar Victoriana. As staff worked to bring in more historic authenticity to the holiday program, visitors resisted. The historically-accurate notion that Christmas was not widely or uniformly celebrated initially proved less satisfying to some guests. Giving slightly to popular opinion, The Curtis Family’s story, relying on their Dutch heritage, was stretched a bit more toward St. Nicholas than their Methodist faith might normally suggest. The biography of the composite character for Dr. Campbell was made Presbyterian by birth and Episcopalian by his marriage to Mrs. Campbell, which allows his character a wider berth for discussing the shift toward more celebratory and secular holiday traditions.
There are other festivities at Conner Prairie. Breakfasts and Dinners with Santa sell out. Our Gingerbread Village display has dwindled in recent years to a crossroads, but there is a push to revive submissions. Programming has fluctuated inside and outside over the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
While Candlelight might be an old-timer, holiday programming cannot be not static. The competition is fierce. The adjacent city of Carmel began a Christkindlmarkt last year, attracting around 150,000 people. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis offers its hugely popular Jolly Days Winter Wonderland. The light displays win awards for the Christmas at the Zoo celebration at the Indianapolis Zoo. Ongoing planning and adjustments are necessary. In order to allow larger crowds, this year Conner Prairie by Candlelight will have guests tour at their own pace, rather than in groups following a set route. In its second year, there is a short two-character play, Tales at the Holidays: Letters from the Civil War, using song, dancing and puppetry to tell the intriguing story of brave mail couriers during the Civil War. For the first time, Christmas lights will be added to the front of the Welcome Center. Feet through the door will tell if these tweaks work. Cranky Mr. Fenton, beloved Christmas curmudgeon, might decry the wish to get more people on site celebrating the season, but that just makes reveling all the sweeter. Just ask the rowdies!
Conner Prairie’s mission: to inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana's past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences.
This article can be found in Fall/Winter 2019 - "Holiday Programming (Whether You Like it or Not)" (Volume 29, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Catherine Hughes is Director of Museum Theatre and Research at Conner Prairie History Museum. In her work there, she has overseen operations across the grounds, been part of the team developing Create.Connect, an exhibition combining history and science, and partnered with Asante Children’s Theatre to create a performance initiative, Giving Voice: African-American’s Presence in Indiana’s History. She also teaches Museum Education at Indiana University-Indianapolis and has developed and taught a Museum Theatre course in Butler University’s theatre department. A theater practitioner, educator and researcher, she has worked at the Atlanta History Center; the Museum of Science, Boston; and the London Science Museum. She founded the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL), and is the author of Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors through Drama. She has spoken widely on the use of theatre in museums and received a PhD in Theatre Education from The Ohio State University.