History during the Holidays: Greenfield Village Holiday Nights at The Henry Ford

The holidays are all about traditions. We all understand that the coming of the holiday season means honoring the same family practices and hearing the same family stories from our aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa, mom and dad. Our holiday traditions become a part of our heritage, a personal history that deeply affects who we are. But even these traditions change as we change.

One tradition that defines the start of the holiday season for my dad and me is the annual Holiday Nights walk at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Actually, all of the seasons and holidays have at one time or another been marked with a trip to Greenfield Village, May Day? Yes. Halloween? You bet. The opening of baseball season? Why not? They have a baseball team after all. In this way Greenfield Village has become a part of my DNA and without a doubt influenced me to go into Public History now. From its romanticized Main Street with fleets of Model Ts speeding down the street at a steady clip of 10mph, to its “Working Farm” that allows visitors to milk cows, feed chickens, and weed gardens, Greenfield Village packs the entirety of 19th and early 20th century American history into one whirlwind history attraction. Make sure you wear good walking shoes.

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So my dad and I heralded in the holiday season as we usually did: Model T ride first (the line gets too long later on), a visit to the printing press and blacksmith, a 1910 Carrousel ride (or two or three rides), a caroling-required wagon ride, a walk through Thomas Edison’s laboratory, and a visit to Santa who calls out to the children (and to 22-year-old Public History graduate students) by name due to helpful elves with a walkie-talkie system. Yet the highlight of our visit is always the dramatic telling to “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by a man named Anthony. He tells the same story over and over, but tells it each time with the same passion and excitement as the first time. At the end of his telling people thank him, hug him, take photos with him, and treat him with so much love that he becomes part of their family for that moment. All of these holiday activities are generally ahistorical, but still warmed my heart with holiday cheer and reminded me of the many memorable father-daughter moments from visits past.

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This year, in order to capitalize on the buzz with Lincoln and other Civil War commemorations, Greenfield Village presented a Union Army encampment in one of their historic homes. Inside the house, two soldiers talked with visitors about the end of the 1862 campaign and the settling of winter camp. The crowd politely listened to their presentation and then quietly turned out the door, heading down the street to visit Santa at the Noah Webster House. I turned to one of the soldiers and asked how the men were responding to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and what the general feelings regarding slavery were. The soldier, who introduced himself as Major Matthew Short, answered my questions and then added, “You know something about history, don’t you?” From there we talked about my education and interests in public history and his passion for reenacting. “You know,” he said, “all of this holiday celebration is fine, especially in such a beautiful place among all of these historic sites. But you’d be surprised how many people don’t know their history. People ask me all the time, ‘How was the fighting at Bunker Hill?’ and I say ‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe we should ask my great-grandfather.’ You know? It just kills me that people don’t know about their past. You have to know what I mean, am I right?”

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I do know what he means. Public ignorance of or disinterest in history is an issue that worked its way into nearly every Public History Methods class last semester. As Public Historians in the real world, how can we develop program and exhibits that not only engage and entertain visitors, but teach them something important about the past, something that they can apply to their present-day lives even. And it’s this public ignorance that lies at the heart of my recent struggle with Greenfield Village. It certainly delivers on the entertainment side. The summertime bear-handed baseball games complete with a brass band in the grandstand and bountiful popcorn and peanuts are more fun than an actual MLB game at times. But unless you approach the players and ask questions, you’ll never really gain any knowledge of the history of the game. These men are passionate amateur historians with a wealth of good historical knowledge. But most people choose to simply watch rather than engage. Which is a shame. And begs the question: what can we as public historians do to fix it?

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As a kid, I was wholly enamored with Greenfield Village. I still am, in a way. Though now my love for the place has more to do with the history that I have created there with my dad, not the entertaining history that it presents. Holiday Nights will still continue to be one of my favorite holiday traditions, but as I continue in my education as a public historian, I’m sure that my relationship with Greenfield Village will only become more complicated.

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