Monday, November 30, 2009


As recounted from We Make History’s Victorian Christmas Ball by Private Christopher Francis of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry.

Photos by Mr. Michael C.
(Click any picture for a larger view.)

I have barely greeted a family with a card of Christmas tidings when our eyes meet. She’s here -- the kindly schoolteacher Miss Kay. I consider her my adopted grandmother. She considers me her adopted patriot son. We rush to hug each other.

“I was telling people you’d be really excited!” she says.

“I’ve missed you,” I reply. She once told me, “Don’t be lonely,” where “be” was an action verb. I’ve been heeding that advice the best I can.

“I have something for you,” she says. She turns around to procure a tiny golden ring, which she slips onto my right pinky.

“You know the ’12 Days of Christmas?’” she says. “Five Golden Rings!”

We laugh while my mind takes note that this will probably be the only time I wear a golden ring for the foreseeable future.

Another lady spots me, a lady who can’t resist dancing with me. She comes bearing hugs and a request: “At least three dances!”

“My lady,” I politely implore. “There are many ladies and I have a gentlemanly duty to do!”

The ballroom is full of the fair ones, in festive gowns of all colors, some from Victorian England, some from Civil War America, a few adapted from Colonial New England, and others just beautiful in their own special way. My estimation, likely conservative, is that at least 150 people are in the hall. It will make for an interesting grand promenade. Our hosting Colonel tries a new maneuver: routing the lines of lords and ladies outside the hall into the dark and cool of the early November evening through one door and quickly back inside through another. I glance across the road to see if any neighbors are standing about in curious observance. Nobody spots us. The Colonel once again demonstrates his flanking maneuvers, getting us into and out of a tight spot.

The lady who implores me for dances is my partner for this promenade, at my wholehearted request, yet I would be remiss in not telling you, Dearest Readers, that another is on my mind. Where is Madame Noire?

It does not matter what the fine musicians of Scrub Oak are playing at this moment, “The Girl I Left Behind” is on my mind. She is not among us, the elegant Victorian lady I have shared so many dances with. Where could she be? I cannot let it affect me. I have that gentlemanly duty!

A mixer helps in the fulfillment of that task, of course, and our caller Miss Becky is a master of them, leading us into a pair of concentric circles -- for the multitude requires such -- and having us swing and do-si-do our partners before having the gentlemen move on to the next ladies.

* * *

“It is a proven fact to at least one-sixth of the population,” the Colonel observes, that the brightest and most talented people are born in the final two months of the year. Thus he calls for those born in November and December to step to the center of the room, your humble servant included.

This is where those being honored for birthdays stand, or perhaps jig a bit, while our host leads the others in a round of “For They’re Such Jolly Good Fellows” while the others circle round. It is a hard concept for some to grasp, yet not surprising since the brightest and most talented are in the center of the room.

“Do we feel honored?” our leader asks us.


“Encore!” our leader shouts.

Sometimes one must step up to duty on a moments’ notice. So with nary a second of thought about it, I emerge from the center of the room and begin to sing in my tolerable tenor, enlightening the puzzled crowd and coaxing them to circle around as I walk about the room. They catch on quickly.

“Do we feel honored?” our leader asks again.

Yes, this will do. The honored now have the honor of being the first to choose partners for the next dance. For most people, that would be a dream. For me, it’s a bit more complicated.

When I seek a dancing partner, I am looking for a particular person: a lady who seems a bit lost or yearning, standing on the perimeter, eyes searching about, perhaps kneading her fingers a bit nervously. That is when I make my bow and offer. That is the lady I seek, for I was once where she stood, and part of my life’s Mission is to be a blessing for those who feel neglected, especially on the dance floor.

It seems to me every lady is taken. Yet before desperation can set in, I feel a tug at my side. A wee lass is asking me for a dance! It is I who needs the rescue as we form small circles for another mixer that shall take us around the room.

We soon dance yet another one, one that requires two ladies as my partners. I bow humbly to a pair who I know are exceptionally skilled in the ways of the ballroom, and we step through a series of circles and stars left and right as Scrub Oak takes us on a musical journey from Victorian England to Eastern Europe and points beyond.

Says one of my partners, “now they’re playing Russian music!” Or more specifically, the famous Hungarian Dance, a treat for those fans of the classics.

“Well now ladies,” I say to the fair ones of the 1st Virginia, “let us see if you might be able to top that!”

The gentlemen have just finished a round of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and the challenge is now issued. The ladies, just as brave as their beloved soldiers, embark in song:

“Oh the Holly and the Ivy
When they are both full grown,
Of all the tress that are in the wood,
The Holly bears the crown…”

They sing a tune a bit different than the one we are all familiar with, but the challenge is no dissuasion, and eventually the gentlemen lend their voices.

It is merely a prelude. Later, when we are all gathered to carol, the ladies are invited to sing one verse of “Silent Night” by themselves.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of GOD, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth.”

Their voices are in perfect unison, aided by perfect acoustics. They are choirs of angels, singing in exultation, their voices washing over us like a warm breeze or a gentle tide. I shiver just a bit. Nothing this perfect is of itself. As it is written in the Book of James, all good and perfect gifts are from above, and “cometh down from the FATHER of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

“Could you sing that again?” our host requests. I can see the penitence in his face, profoundly moved, sitting before us with his three daughters.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of GOD, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth.”

Is that a flute I hear among the ladies voices? It has to be. But I cannot see one amongst the faces. Those voices are even more perfect than I could ever imagine.

* * *

“Ladies and gentlemen! Choose your partner for the Old Virginia Reel!”

I find the lady from the Promenade. She and I have danced it together in the past. I know she knows her stuff.

Every set should have an experienced top couple, our host announces. The lady and I are the second from the top, and I know they are no strangers to the dance, but without any request, they step aside and let us rise to the top.

Everyone dances it nearly flawlessly from the start, honoring, swinging, do-si-doing, sashaying and even reeling. It is a new move for many, but they pick it up quickly. And even if they don’t, we guide those lost souls through it and keep going. Perfection is not the goal.

We dance for at least ten minutes, maybe more, leaving us out of breath but satisfied and thankful for such an opportunity for liveliness. If that was not enough, we also have an opportunity to “Chase The Squirrel,” sending ladies and gentlemen running about the sets of dancers.

The Victorians of England would not have swung as hard or danced as fast, but as our host reminds us, “We are in America.”

One cannot celebrate the Christmas season without gifts, and in our case, we have lovely prizes of chocolate, cookies, and candies for those whose names our hosts draw by lot, with one simple request: be able to recite a historic fact, sing a Christmas carol, or dance a lively Christmas jig.

A few offer facts or beautiful stanzas of their favorite carols. The crowd acts as judge and jury.

“The Civil War began in 1860,” one lady states as her fact.

Not quite.

“Jig! Jig!” the gathered shout.

Our host dances it with her as we clap and encourage. Fifteen seconds of this forced revelry is punishment enough, and she claims her prize to our applause.

One winner is caught with neither fact nor carol. He offers a jig but needs some support. His sister joins him before the gathering, and I join them, having chauffeured them both to this soiree.

He jigs. She jigs. My jig morphs into a Confederate Highland Fling.

Our host has seen enough. “Now they’re just showing off!” he wryly notes.

* * *

Even with an extra hour devoted to the festivities, the final waltz comes too soon for many. Once again, I seek the lady I promenaded. I shall end up honoring her request after all. For many times this evening I have seen her searching for a partner, and she is left standing alone. My Mission continues.

So we share one last dance, trying a twinkle step before settling back into the familiar two-step. One always goes back to the things that work.

Yet the evening is not over, and we retire to a familiar haunt for a post-ball feast, to reflect, remember and reminisce and wonder why the rest of the world isn’t like the one we have made for ourselves. Thus it is not easy bringing the night to a close, even in the wee hours of the morning. Young and old spend many moments hugging and wishing each other well.

“Nobody wants to say goodbye,” our host says.

“It’s not goodbye,” I say. “It’s ‘See you later.’”

And thus it is with Madame, who never arrived. I later inquired of her, and she told me she ran into troubles with her modern-day carriage. I could feel it weigh heavy on her heart. It’s all right, I say. We will dance again soon. It will be my gift, my pleasure.

HUZZAH! Click here for more memories and photographs of this joyous evening!

Merry Christmas To All! More Life & Timelines adventures to come in 2010! (or sooner!)

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