A New Traditional Museum Christmas

The Christmas season is upon us again and we in early American house museums rejoice in its arrival. Though we spend the other eleven months of the year doggedly trying to “correct” people’s understanding of the past, Christmas relieves us of the tedium of authenticity.

Who wants to talk about the religious strife once engendered by Christmas? Or that most Protestants did not even recognize it, and some of those who did were belittled by “true” Protestants as secret Catholics. And that there were no decorations, no carols, or that, if recognized at all, it was spent in church. It wouldn’t make for a very merry museum Christmas.

So instead we cobble together a Christmas celebration which is part non-specific period decoration and part modern Christmas. We do it because the Christmas season is a month-long Black Friday for museums. Our visitation (and our coffers) swell. Christmas is a house museum institution.

We here at Peabody’s Lament believe we can find happiness in this season of joy by staying true to our past while engaging the present. One of the most popular ways of celebrating Christmas past, or any holiday actually, was to drink and shoot guns. Why not revive these traditional celebrations? After all, these remain two of America’s most treasured pastimes. So much so that the museum wouldn’t need to supply anything. Visitors can just dip into their personal stockpile. This has the added benefit of making it a hands-on activity.

This proposal is a museum dream. It promises increased visitation, minimal staff preparation (though the clean-up could take weeks, lawsuits longer), and an unforgettable authentic experience. And isn’t that what Christmas in the museum is all about?

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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

12 responses to “A New Traditional Museum Christmas

  • Jennifer Moore

    I was mentally planning next year’s Christmas experience; selecting a homey Americana setting, sipping hot cider and stringing popcorn and cranberries to dress the fragrant holiday tree with my kids until I turned my head and imagined myself looking down the barrel of some well-meaning curator’s historically accurate gun… Merry Christmas!

  • Jennifer Moore

    Wonderful Blog!

  • marymiley

    Oh, so very true! Let the shooting and quaffing begin!

  • kittycalash

    Our docents still hate me for killing Christmas, and 10 years on, I’m still sweeping up pine needles and glitter from obscure corners of an 18th century house. I’m all for guns and alcohol, and a sporting shooting contest between various museum factions.

    • T.H. Gray

      Kitty, we simply must applaud you for your efforts to bring history and sanity to your house museum.

      As for a shooting contest between factions, do you mean a target shoot or a shootout? Either way, we’re on your side.

  • Sarah Bellian

    The museum I previously worked for had an entire room full of decorations. When I asked why they were purchasing more decorations, I was informed by a board member that we couldn’t use anything that had been “seen” before. There was also a graveyard of artificial Christmas trees (at least 7) stuffed in trash bags above the ventilation. Cleaning out that room definitely made me loathe Christmas. The trouble with a shooting contest, I think, is that in many museums the curator & staff would be totally outnumbered by pro-Christmas docents. >_<

    • T.H. Gray

      Sarah, believe it or not, this is not the first time we’ve heard the “no repeat” decorations story. Our non-scientific observations suggests this is more common among wealthier museums or those who want to appear well off. What do you think, are we off base here?

      Actually one of the reasons I loathe museum Christmas is early in my career I was forced to endure the singing of one Christmas hymn dozens of times in a single night. Since each new singing meant an entirely new audience, I had to appear just as happy to hear it the 24th (no joke) time as the first.

      But what’s Christmas without a lot of excess, right?

    • kittycalash

      We tossed as many decorations as we could, mostly in the summer, and sometimes using the excuse of construction workers needing access to spaces. It was both disturbing and very satisfying.

      My original impulse was a shoot out, but that would be wrong, if fun to imagine.

      As recently as October I had an argument with an intern about Christmas celebrations and decorations in the 18th century. These notions of wreaths and ribbons and presents under the tree being handed down from the dawn of time will not die.

      The intern used “well, they were ancient pagan customs” to justify portraying “Victorian-style” Christmas in an 18th century house occupied by Baptists descended from men left Massachusetts with Roger Williams. Pretty sure ol’ Roger never had a Christmas tree… and no, she’s not our intern any more.

  • Christmas In Museum Land | Museuming

    […] “sell out” when they “deck” their exhibit halls. A second blog called Peabody’s Lament says “We do it because the Christmas season is a month-long Black Friday for museums. Our […]

  • T.H. Gray

    Reblogged this on Peabody's Lament and commented:

    It’s December, which means it’s time for historic house museums (and the rest of us too) to drag out Christmas programming so old, even Jesus saw it. Here’s ours, which is a call for an entirely new kind of museum Christmas.

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