Last week, I had the treat of attending Christmas by Candlelight at the Duke Homestead, the residence of Washington Duke. The house was built in 1870 and the festivities included the old-fashioned traditional Victorian Christmas activities like his family would have experienced.
The night was perfect with a chill and slight breeze, enough to feel Christmas in the air. We were led out to the house and barns through a pathway lighted by kerosene lanterns and luminaries. The two-story white house reminded me of the one my great-grandparents built in 1880 and I lived in until I was fourteen. It was always very dark and quiet around our house that was out in the country away from city lights and traffic. Walking in our tour group by the light of candles and lanterns, made me think of how it would have been for my grandparents– back in the days before electricity when there were no porch lights to help you find your way.
How quiet it would have been.
We were led into one of the buildings flanking the house where costumed children were dancing the Virginia Reel. Members of the audience were invited to join in. I was content to watch and remembered how I was first introduced to dancing in elementary school. Our music teacher, who usually came to our classroom, took us to the stage of our school auditorium where we learned to square dance. I remembered a tall boy in my class who I loved being paired with– my first experience of partner dancing. Funny to think that after all the years I now love social dancing– that partner dancing that includes Swing and Texas 2-step for me.
We left the dance and were guided across the way to the Duke house. We met ‘Father Christmas,’ AKA my brother-in-law, in the parlor, sitting by a roaring fire. He’s been a volunteer at the Homestead for years and withstood the heat from the Santa suit to play his part. He talked with the children about what they were expecting from Santa; how different the lists were when I was a child; how different they were for the Duke children in the 1870s.
Our next stop was the dining room with an interactive reading of The Night Before Christmas, followed in the kitchen by an explanation of why figgie pudding was a favorite on the Victorian menu. But the next activity was my favorite: fireside singing.
We followed our guide down the back porch steps and were handed a cup of apple cider and a generous-sized sugar cookie. Afterwards, we took seats in the circle around the campfire. Positioned next to a lantern, I was able to see the words to the carols in the song booklet. A woman and middle-school-aged boy played fiddles and a man played the guitar. The woman welcomed us and asked that we request our favorite Christmas carols.
Sitting in that circle, looking up through the bare tree branches at the moon shining down, I felt a blending of the past and the present. Being at the Duke Homestead had transported me to my childhood in our home decorated with greens gathered from our farm. I was reminded of the excitement of waiting for Santa Claus.
The night had also transported me to a place of peace in the present. For a while, I’d let go of the struggles of the last months and felt grounded by the smell of wood smoke and voices singing songs of the season. In that warmth and Christmas joy, I called out my request.
“Let’s sing “Silent Night,” ” I said, then listened to the musicians play their intro. Looking up through the dark, bare tree limbs to the light of the moon, I felt a peacefulness fall over me. The woman sitting to my left sang soprano and I found my alto notes to blend in harmony with her. I’d always loved the opening lines:
Silent Night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
I wanted to memorize that scene and carry it with me, remembering the rest found in silence. Whether I was at a once-a-year candlelight event or walking in my neighborhood, I could seek out that silence.
How about you?
What are the holiday activities that ground you? What is your favorite carol and why?
How can you carry those things that bring you joy beyond the holidays?