Forthcoming: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums

The past year has been so busy for me that I’ve rarely been able to share what I’m discovering and learning through this blog, but with the pandemic restrictions lifting, my posts should be more frequent. The biggest challenge for me was teaching graduate courses online at George Washington University. I usually teach in-person using a whiteboard and a list of goals for each class, using the class discussion to inspire how the presentation will proceed. Online, whiteboards are very difficult to use (try writing with a mouse!) and students were reluctant to have discussions online (most students kept their cameras off). So I built PowerPoint presentations for every class to address each of my goals, keep students engaged, and avoid being a talking head on a computer screen. Incredibly time consuming and exhausting. I’m so glad to be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction—and so are our students!

Although online teaching was incredibly demanding, I still had time to pursue other projects including a second book with Ken Turino of Historic New England: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums and Historic Sites. Although dozens of books have been published on the national and regional history of Christmas celebrations in the last two decades, there are no how-to books on the research, interpretation, and programming of Christmas at historic sites or museums.  In March, Rowman and Littlefield accepted our proposal and it will be part of the Interpreting series at the American Association for State and Local History. We are working with contributors from across the country to assemble two dozen chapters for publication in spring 2023 and although we’re still identifying contributors and case studies, and the contents are subject to change, here’s what’s happening so far:

Interpreting Christmas will open with a section on the history of Christmas from 1750 to 1950 in the United States as it affects the interpretation of house museums.  Ken will begin with a chapter examining the history of Christmas through the elements that are most visible at house museums, such as the tree, gifts, and Santa Claus. It will be followed by a series of essays exploring regional and cultural differences.  For example, I will trace how Christmas traditions changed during the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods in California; Emmanuel Dabney (National Park Service) will focus on enslaved communities; Karen Leathem (Louisiana State Museum) will examine Louisiana; Megan Wood and Stacia Kuceyeski (Ohio History Connection) will discuss Ohio; and Mary van Balgooy (Society of Woman Geographers) will make connections between Christmas and women’s reform movement. These chapters will give curators and educators themes and perspectives to consider as they interpret Christmas at their historic sites. 

The core of the book focuses on the practical aspects of planning and programming.  Laurel Racine (National Park Service), Andrew Hahn (Campbell House Museum), Patricia West (National Park Service), Jim McKay (National Park Service), and Jeannie Luckett (West Baton Rouge Museum) will outline research techniques and sources to uncover a historic site’s history during the holidays; guide readers to major ways to decorate a house while protecting its historic collections and architecture; and share sources for modern decorations that are suitable for the period rooms (and how to store it all the rest of the year).  This section will conclude with several case studies and an exploration of popular programs and events that are meaningful, relevant, and historically accurate through examples from across the country, including festivals, outdoor museums, and inclusive programming prepared by Sandra Smith, Anna Altschwager, and Sara Bhatia.  These chapters not only provide inspiration for various interpretive methods and formats, but also ways to make Christmas programs more inclusive of diverse traditions.  Finally, the case studies will explore alternatives and compromises when an historically accurate Christmas is not possible.

The book will close with a chapter by me exploring the meaning of Christmas for museums and historic sites and how history can be relevant through thoughtfully researched and planned programs that are designed to have an impact on the public.  Christmas is an opportunity for to build family and community bonds and offer experiences that can be both fun and educational. The holiday can also provide an important source of income through increased attendance as well as in sales in their shops.  Both are crucial aspects for house museums as they seek to be sustainable and engaging.

Meg Bellavance (Historic New England) will point readers to books and articles published since 1990 on the history of Christmas in the United States through an extensive bibliography.   

If you have suggestions for museums or historic sites that are doing exemplary work in interpreting Christmas, please share in the comments below.