When the historical re-enactors at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area say they engage in living history, they’re not exaggerating.
For the weekend of the Old Christmas Celebration, many of them lived inside Fort Watauga for the three-day event, in cabins that are made to represent lodgings for those living in the late 18th century.
“I sleep better here than I do at home,” said Rachel Bennett, who works full-time at Rocky Mount Living History Museum and tends the English-styled cabin. On some of the coldest days of the year, Bennett has no complaints about her meek living quarters, though she says it does get a little chilly at times.
She, and many of the other re-enactors, will live great portions of their time in character at events like Old Christmas. Bennett’s bunk mate, her friend, Suzanna Kulikowski, both appreciate living out the way Christmas was nearly 250 years ago, saying how much more sentiment there was behind the time then.
Bennett wears proof of her pronouncement. She showed off a recent Christmas present from her mother, which was a new, homemade, linen outfit, made especially for her. These types of gifts, both ladies agree, last longer and mean more, and that was the trend at Saturday’s celebration.
Inside Fort Watauga, there were about six different cabins, each representative of a different country’s way of living during that time period. There was a Scottish tavern and cabins representing the Irish, the Dutch, Germans, the English and more. At each stop along the way, the public could pop through a tiny front door, which may have been a time portal, into the main room of a family living during a different time.
Speakers at each cabin would give information about what makes their respective spot so unique, and how many of our modern traditions began.
Chad Bogart, the on-site historical interpreter, was in the Dutch cabin in character explaining how the 12 Days of Christmas came about through a declaration by the pope, which upset Protestants and pleased the Catholics. He also shared information on how Christmas was more for the wealthier families, who would offer Christmas boxes to their servants that might contain small presents, like coins or other little items.
These boxes, Bogart said, were the basis for the modern celebration of Boxing Day.
He spoke to each small group with a twinkle in his eye. As a graduate of East Tennessee State University with a degree in history, Bogart says he feels delighted to do something he loves as a career.
“It’s very gratifying to be able to show someone something they couldn’t see in a book,” Bogart said about his job teaching history with a hands-on method.
In the German cabin were Jabies and Frances Collins, who had heard about the celebration and had always wanted to check it out, but never got around to it.
“We’ve always wanted to come and see all the old traditions that had made it through time,” Jabies Collins said.
The Collinses said they enjoyed re-enactor Romona Invidiato’s information and samplings of bread, cookies, and hot chocolate similar to those varieties served in Germany during the 1770s. Invidiato described many of those Christmas traditions and where they originated.
“All these things we do, we don’t know why we do them, and this is why,” Invidiato said before explaining the origin of the modern Christmas tree and the German cabin’s theme this year, which she said is “Paradise Lost,” referencing the times of Adam and Eve when they were tempted with an apple.
Invidiato makes a point to tell the public to look for the hidden apple in the Christmas tree out front.
In the common area between the other cabins, it wasn’t uncommon to find the re-enactors in full costume, leaning against their muskets as those who guarded the fort might have done several hundred years before, shooting the breeze.
Outside the fort was Park Ranger Jason Davis, whose primary role, he said, was to share living history with the public. Also in costume, he helped funnel people into the fort to experience the history.
He said the organization tries to have about one event similar to the celebration every month through the year, and he takes pride in his work in helping teach that way.
“What we do here is to help people find that connection between them and their heritage,” Davis said.