If Christmas these days seems hectic and commercialized, stepping back into the “Victorian Christmas” at Old Cowtown Museum may be just the dose of nostalgia you need.
Strolling carolers, horse and buggy rides, hot cocoa and dozens of historical re-enactors dressed up in fashions from the 1880s harken back to a time before Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the rest.
Social historians point out that many of our current traditions took hold during the Victorian Era, which ran roughly from the mid-1800s to the start of the 20th century.
“It’s our history but not so removed from what we can relate to today,” said Angela Cato, marketing director with Wichita’s division of Arts and Cultural Services.
This is the 39th year for a Christmas celebration at the 23-acre living history museum on the Arkansas River. This year, attendees can enjoy it on a full stomach. A catered Christmas dinner will be served beforehand in the museum’s visitors center.
As with many Cowtown events, “Victorian Christmas” showcases the efforts of a few hundred volunteers over the course of four days.
Mercedes Kanda will be participating in her second “Victorian Christmas,” portraying a homemaker from the 1880s. But she’s got a much longer history with history. She has volunteered at historical museums and sites in Missouri, Colorado and California, often talking about her special interests: education and women’s fashion of that period.
Kanda said she first volunteered at a museum while in college.
“I learned to really love pioneer life,” she said. “I love talking about it and explaining why it’s different, why we are where we are in 2014 and why they were where they were back then.”
This weekend, Kanda will be stationed in the Munger House, the first settler’s home built in Wichita. She notes that Darius Munger’s house also served as a town hall, post office and hotel, “so there’s a lot there” to talk about.
To get ready, she plans to study photographs of the Munger family. “Then they’re not just a name, they’re people who actually lived and breathed.”
Then she’ll put on the 13 layers of clothing that she said many women wore back then, from stockings, bloomers and corset to petticoat, shawl and hat – many of which she makes herself.
“It takes about 45 minutes to get in, 20 to get out,” she said.
Although she knows how to produce make-up out of things like coal ash and pomegranate seeds, no “proper” female settler would have worn it back then, she said.
Kanda said the Munger House also won’t have a Christmas tree for reasons of historical accuracy – it was built before the railroad arrived in Wichita, bringing that tradition with it – but other Cowtown buildings will have them.
But don’t be surprised if you catch Kanda snapping a photo or two on her cellphone. Of course, that device is a historical anomaly, but to her way of thinking, it shows that people back then weren’t that much different than those today.
“If they’d had it, they would have used it. They lived the life they had available, just as we do today.”
“Victorian Christmas” is one of the few times visitors can see Old Cowtown by candlelight. They can catch a re-enactment of “The Night Before Christmas” in the schoolhouse, peek in on dancers performing in Victorian dress in Turnverein Hall and pick up Christmas gifts from the visitors center, where a collection center for the arts division’s “Letters to Santa” project will also be positioned.
The weather forecast for this weekend calls for highs in the mid-40s to low 50s. But Cato said a little chill in the air “is fun.”
“People can bundle up and get that holiday feel.”
If You Go
Where: Old Cowtown Museum, 1865 W. Museum Blvd
When: 6-9 pm. Friday-Saturday, Dec. 12-13
Tickets: Regular admission prices: $7.75 adults, $6.50 ages 62 and older, $6 ages 12-17, $5.50 ages 4-11; museum members get in free. Dinner buffet costs $19.95 for adult members and $11.95 for child members, $26.95 and $14.95 for nonmembers.