Christmas at the Frontier Culture Museum – Part I

Picture3It’s that time of year again. The TV commercials and store displays first appeared in mid-October this year, but no matter when we see the first signs, Christmas comes so very fast. The Christmas season is always an interesting one here at the Frontier Culture Museum. Our marketing tag line says that we, “Bring the Past to Life,” and we try very hard to do that. We also try to be very honest about the past we bring to life, and about the limits of living history as a means to accomplish this. At no other time of the year is this trickier, and more controversial, than during the Christmas season.

Modern Americans strongly believe that there’s an almost universal way to celebrate Christmas, and that this way is ancient, magical, and steeped in tradition. Many of those same people (you know who you are) will protest and resist any change to what they perceive as a traditional Christmas celebration. Some key elements of our modern American Christmas celebration are:

  • Home and family, mainly children
  • Decorations (both inside and outside the home), which must include lights, the more the better, particular colors (red, green, silver, and gold), and evergreens, real or fake, preferably in the form of a heavily ornamented floor-to-ceiling tree
  • Entertainment, music everywhere all the time, and movies and TV specials
  • Smells (baking cookies, roasting turkey, cinnamon, bayberry, pine, etc.)
  • Gift-giving, featuring a gift-giver we call Santa Claus
  • Food and drink, especially sweets of various types
  • Last, but not least, a Christian worship service, usually on Christmas Eve, with the singing of Christmas hymns, which often includes, “Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy To the World,” a retelling, if not a re-enactment, of the Birth of Christ as told in the second chapters of gospels of Matthew and Luke, and all this must involve at least a few minutes of candlelight


This modern American celebration also has a spirit, the Christmas Spirit, which offers peace, good will; open handed and heartedness, forgiveness, and giving. It’s supposed to inspire us to give each other a break, call a truce, and just relax and be happy for a day or two, or even a week.

What makes this tricky for the Museum is that we have learned over the years, after many questions and much historical inquiry, that folks in the Old World celebrated Christmas in very different ways in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and some opposed celebrating it at all. Some of these Christmas celebrations, and opposition to them, were carried to the American colonies, but these are now often strange and unfamiliar to most of us. The situation is even trickier when we share that a good bit of our American Christmas celebration is very American, indeed, and hasn’t been a part of the celebration for as long as some folks like to think. So when we develop our Christmas programming, such as Lantern Tours, we are mindful of these challenges and we try our best to present the holiday as it might have been celebrated at the times and among the people we represent here at the Museum. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that our intentions are sometimes misunderstood.Picture2-01

In weeks ahead we’ll try to clarify some of the issues about Christmas celebrations and traditions of the past that seem to emerge here at the Museum every year around this time. Next will be an attempt to provide some insight into the knotty question of the “secularization” of Christmas, or the true reason for the season, and why the religious aspects of the holiday don’t appear to be central to what we represent here at our exhibits.


  1. Eric Bryan has really whetted my appetite to know more about Christmas as it was celebrated in the Old World/American colonial times. Looking forward to the next installments.

  2. I would also like to read more.

  3. Catherine says:

    I would, as well. We’re planning to be in Staunton during Christmas week and are looking forward to experiencing the Lantern Tour!

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