Once again, the familiar seasonal imagery is playing out in school art projects and advertisements: Pilgrims, the Mayflower, Christmas trees, menorahs, New Year’s Eve party hats and the Three Wise Men representing the Magi.
And while many of these traditions are observed worldwide, though there may be a different take depending on customs, far more holiday observations remain unfamiliar to us. But in this global economy, that’s changed with a simple click of a mouse or even a visit from the Summit County Historical Society (SCHS).
There’s an Irish custom, Feeding of the Wren, that celebrates St. Stephen Day on December 26. Children walk door to door with a holly-adorned pole to which a wren in a cage is attached to collect money for the poor, after which time the bird is released.
And a Polish custom finds unmarried women pulling out blades of straw that were placed under a white tablecloth before Christmas dinner. A green blade foretells marriage, a yellow means spinsterhood, while a short blade predicts an early grave and a withered one signifies waiting.
“I think we highlight 11 different nationalities,” said Alison First, education coordinator at SCHS.
First is referring to “Holiday Traditions From Around the World,” an hour-long program launched November 8 and performed by SCHS at various venues including nursing homes, assisted living centers, church clubs and social organizations.
Holiday Traditions had 16 bookings at press time and just as many booked for the 2013 holiday season.
But the SCHS goes beyond just providing folks a fun and informative glimpse of international holiday traditions spanning Thanksgiving through the Epiphany.
Since the mid-90s, it has been doing social outreach with “Remember When,” an historical interactive program that entertains and educates with such topics as On the Home Front – The Many Hats of WWII.
“These are lifelong learning programs,” First said. “We’re telling a history of what life was like for the Victorian woman or the canal story.”
“Remember When” comprises nine different programs. The Victorian Woman educates audience members about the proper role of women of that era, complete with bonnets, corsets, manners and even flirtation.
Lots of Locks — A Canal Story uses a Power Point presentation highlighting the history of the Ohio and Erie canal.
The programs may change, depending on the popularity of each, First says, and the SCHS is always researching new topics to explore. The other Remember When offerings are Necessity is the Mother of Invention, Happy Days are Here Again — the Baby Boom Years, History of the Victorian Valentine, The Doctor’s Black Bag — Home Remedies & Folk Lore and Grandma’s Attic/Grandpa’s Garage.
Many of the programs’ props come from SCHS, and First and her husband are no strangers to garage sales and eBay to round up additional items. And some folks have donated items to coincide with the programs, such as a local family that gave a WWII foot locker from one of its family members who served.
All of the shows are performed solo seven days a week during most hours by a SCHS staff member for as few as six people and as many as 150, First says.
A nonprofit, the SCHS must write grants to develop the Remember When programs. The per-program rates are minimal, $85 for Summit County and $105 for surrounding counties, which may include a mileage fee.
“We bring out boxes and suitcases, and it takes 45 to 60 minutes just to set up the props.” First says. “And we need at least two 6-foot tables just to hold the holiday program props. It’s a lot of work and exhausting, but the reward is truly fantastic!”
In a corner of First’s office on the grounds of the Simon Perkins Mansion, shelves are lined with old hat boxes, menorah candles, party horns and plenty more props. And to haul it all, enough luggage to rival O’Hare’s baggage claim.
First recalled a couple at an assisted living center, where she was presenting Happy Days are Here Again — the Baby Boom Years. While an old record player she brought was spinning Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” an older gentleman took his the hand of his wife, who had dementia, and they “began waltzing across the floor.”
“There’s so many stories like that, and it’s really amazing when we can awaken those senses,” she added. “Sometimes they may not remember their families, but this gave them the opportunity to participate, this they remembered. And to be a part of it is just incredible and so much fun.”
Those interested in booking “Holiday Traditions From Around the World” or one of the many “Remember When” programs, contact the Summit County Historical Society at (330) 535-1120.