BLACKSBURG—Kenna Jewell may have been dressed in modern clothes on Wednesday, but she was doing something decidedly 18th century.
Jewell, program coordinator at Historic Smithfield Plantation, was trimming sprigs of boxwood from the grounds of the historic home to decorate for this year’s expanded Christmas-themed celebration and fundraiser set for Dec. 7-8.
“Smithfield Yuletide,” as it’s named, has replaced the long-running “Holidays at Smithfield” event that traditionally caps the museum’s year. The private, nonprofit property—a re-creation of life on the pre-United States Appalachian frontier—is open for tours and events from spring through December.
This year’s event will include the traditional “Susanna’s Tea,” a catered meal in honor of plantation matriarch Susanna Smith Preston, and will feature period music in the drawing room, Jewell said. But a litany of other activities, many spread out around the grounds, will be new, she said.
There will be portrait station set up with a photographer, so guests can get a picture made in the 1774 mansion decorated for Christmas.
But much of the activity will go on outdoors and celebrate older traditions.
Yule, or Juul, was the pre-Christian Germanic winter solstice celebration that included a long-burning Yule log. Those rituals were later adapted by Christian communities to help celebrate the birth of Christ and were passed down from the old world to the new.
In the slave-holding South, Yuletide was a time of rest for enslaved people.
“Traditionally, at plantations … in the mid-Atlantic states, as long as the Yule log was burning it was an observed holiday by the enslaved community,” Smithfield Executive Director Ryan Spencer said.
That meant that while it burned, enslaved people were released from heavy work.
“And so, quite often they would try to find something that was very hard wood and big,” Spencer said. “And I’ve heard some stories of people soaking it for a little while. You want it to burn but not too quickly.”
Smithfield staff will keep a Yule log harvested from the property burning in its outdoor pavilion on Saturday and Sunday. Around the fire, interpreters will tell stories and offer crafting workshops, among other activities.
Some of Jewell’s boxwood went straight to a demonstration model for one of those workshops: the Colonial Kissing Ball. With prior registration, attendees can make one of these decorations on Sunday to take home. It will be led by Lisa Lloyd and Carol Trutt, Master Gardeners who volunteer at Smithfield.
Used as a decoration for the Colonial Christmas dinner table, kissing balls contained greenery and mistletoe and were also hung over doors and in archways.
“It will make a very different decoration,” Jewell said. “And when you’re finished with it, you can hang it outside and let the birds enjoy it.”
There will be special children’s stories in the house and a beeswax candle making workshop for them, Jewell said.
Spencer said all the house decorations will celebrate Colonial aesthetics, which emphasized simple and spare use of natural materials.
“They’re not overdone like the mid-Victorian period when it looked like the forest was brought indoors,” Spencer said.
But it will also include status symbols like pomegranate and the all-important pineapple, both of which required money and connections to acquire in the Colonial era.
“Pineapple shows hospitality, and it also shows that you’re a person of means,” Spencer said.
We can assume, Spencer said, that in going to the expense of building a Williamsburg-style mansion on the frontier and making it the center of culture here, Smithfield founder Col. William Preston would have procured these kinds of fruits for his Christmas guests.The museum gift shop also will be open, Jewell said. It will feature the teas that will be served during the event and decorations handmade by the blacksmiths that staff the Smithfield forge. The forge will be operating during the event, too.
Smithfield board member and retired “Smithfield Review” editor Hugh Campbell will sign copies of his history-themed book, “The Blacksburg Drama,” from 4 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Spencer said all proceeds will benefit the museum.
Tickets can be purchased online, by calling 231-3947, sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org or at the event.
Attendees are asked to bring canned foods to donate to the museum’s Yuletide Food Drive to benefit needy families through New River Community Action.
For more information, visit www.historicsmithfield.org.