Pulling The Plug On Nighttime Programs

Candlelight creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood and experience. Visitors are an active part of the experience rather than merely an audience watching a performance.

Candlelight creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood and experience. Visitors are an active part of the experience rather than merely an audience watching a performance.

slave quarters are built on a natural swale and have pine floors that do not draw warmth from the building’s single fireplace. Feet freeze fairly quickly in the cabin during candlelight programs, so an interpretation of slave life is conducted in the kitchen and laundry, where the hearth warms the re-enactors and their guests.

Without outdoor activity, Sully’s landscape can look dark and empty. That’s been spiced up with the addition of a small Victorian street market. Proper clothing for interpreters for periods other than mid-to late 18th century wasn’t available, so interpreters donned cloaks and added accessories to indicate other time periods. In a candlelit atmosphere, this slight deception works well and provides an appropriate silhouette.

Limit The Possibilities

Some ideas, that on a first, second, or even a third look, appear to be solid and worthy, may not work because one aspect is out of sync with the program. For example, wagon rides seemed like a natural extension to evening programming, but after they were introduced a few years ago, it was decided the rides didn’t fit the targeted 18th-century candlelight atmosphere. The sound of tractors pulling the wagons broke the intended mood.

Remaining true to the candlelight theme is difficult outdoors. It is challenging to create appropriate, unobtrusive ways to light outdoor parking and walking areas to make them safe and enjoyable. Sully uses many candle lanterns, cresset torches, and metal baskets on poles filled with burning wood to cast substantial light at intersections. Safety demands some concessions, though, to modern adornment. Sully uses strings of small, white Christmas lights along footpaths, and the maintenance crew chief has placed spotlights in trees.

Start A Candlelight Event

To launch a similar program, start planning early. And then, start even earlier than that. It will take teamwork and true cooperation as well as time to find the right volunteers to pull together program finances through sponsorships or grants.

Preparation means both program preparation and preparation of the visitors. A dress rehearsal walk-through with interpreters and guides assures that the program will flow smoothly. Informing visitors what they will see and how interpreters will interact makes the experience more enjoyable and meaningful. Timed tour tickets ensure that each group receives an equal period in the Lee family house. Advance promotional information about the candlelight tours is not specific because themes and activities change daily.

Visitors can then stroll at a pace that allows them to soak up the ambiance and reflect on the scene. They aren’t hurried from one station to another. Interactive activities, such as a puppet show, dancing, music, and visits with soldiers encamped in the yard, have been particularly well-received. Bad weather, the loss of outdoor lights for any number of reasons, and missed tour times are logistical problems that stress plans.

In considering a holiday candlelight festival, determine how Christmas and other December holidays relate to your mission and what holiday message the staff wants to impart to the public. Consider the site and its advantages. A nature center might use lanterns to conduct a walk around the center and its grounds. Puppets or dressed animal characters can talk about animal behavior in the winter.

If you are looking for tips for programming in December, use the opportunity to interpret at a festive time and turn gloomy winter days into those filled with the holiday spirit.

David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications in the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority. Reach him at David.ochs@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Barbara Ziman is the Events Coordinator at Sully Historic Site. Reach her at Barbara.ziman@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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