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Christmas/Holiday: Lantern Walks in Victorian Ontario

Our four girls raced from the log cabin anxious to see which color of sheep's wool tree ornament they'd just been given. Squatting underneath the glow of a spotlight outside, they compared the small tufts of fluff hanging from loops of died wool. "Oh darn, mine's grey," said one. "Hey mine's blue, I like it," said another with surprise. Coming closer together to dangle the simple home-made ornaments under the light, they were soon falling over each other in gulps of laughter. Apart from having a good time at the annual Black Creek Pioneer Village "Christmas by Lamplight" evening, these 20th-century kids had just learned something. No matter how many candles or gas lanterns or roaring fires were lit inside the home, it still wasn't bright enough to distinguish blue from green.

This was our second pilgrimage to Black Creek's annual candlelit evenings. My 12-year-old Natalie and her friend Chase had enjoyed it so much last year that four friends and their mums had decided to participate in this unique lantern walk. As we travelled in the dark, wandering from house to house, visiting the costumed inhabitants, tasting treats, attending Church service, the young teens (and their mums) learned other things as well-how to fashion a Christmas angel from a piece of paper, how to turn a square of punched tin into a toy, and what could happen if you stood under the kissing bough. Many of the costumed "citizens" offered us treats such as cheese straws or candied sugar plums, judged as " yuck" by the girls, or sausage rolls and peppermint pastilles, pronounced "yum."

We found that some customs had endured. For instance, the strolling singers were singing the same Christmas carols, hot apple cider was served (although it was mulled over a crackling fire outdoors), and, at one pioneer home, a wooden Noah's ark decorated a table, a Christmas tradition carried on in one of the girl's homes today. Some families carried punched tin lanterns made by the village tinsmith, the flickering candles illuminating parts of the homes and paths as they swung along.

But other customs were definitely weird, such as the mantel decorations- small British flags protruding from evergreen boughs. The sounds and smells were unfamiliar too-the smoky aroma of oil as you walked into the homes or Meeting Hall, boots clomping on the wooden sidewalks and hardwood floors, sleigh bells and dulcimer music, and Christmas stories told by a storyteller.

Yes, a Ho-ho kind of Santa was there, but he was leading tours of the village chimneys from the horse-pulled wagon. And there was coal for the stockings in the village shop, 25 cents a piece, in case your angels turned from nice to naughty in the upcoming weeks. But the horses were festooned with bells, the coal was sold alongside jars of honey and candy sticks, and the inhabitants seemed to be having a good time without Santa and his loopy jokes. As this hectic season heats up with TV toy advertising, Muzac Christmas carols, and glitzy displays of plastic lit-up snowmen flashing lights, I can take a deep breath and remind myself (and the kids) that Christmas does not need three thousand presents or lights on every holiday object to be magical.

Two other famous historic villages offer Christmastime lantern walks. If you're driving to Florida or South Carolina for the holidays, and you're travelling the eastern route, it's worth it to get off the I-95 at Richmond, Virginia and make the short detour to Williamsburg. This restored 18th-century colonial capital employs hundreds of costumed townspeople in more than 500 restored homes and buildings. The fact that Colonial Williamsburg sells tickets la Walt Disney World, up to a three-day pass, should have tipped us off a few years ago that we would need more than a couple of hours to see America's largest historic restoration. Here, kids can watch their peers doing cross-stitch, lugging the laundry, or taking music lessons. At Christmastime, candles flicker in the windows; apples, lemons, or pinecones decorate parlors; candlelit balls are staged where visiting teens can practise the minuet. Holiday lantern walks take place every evening at 8:30 p.m. and last about an hour. Then at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, muskets fire along the Duke of Gloucester Street to announce the start of Christmas.

At Mystic Seaport, a reconstructed whaling village in Mystic, Connecticut, kids under eight swab a deck, climb the rigging, and see life from a bunk, dressed as a 19th-century sailor. During the summer, kids can participate in day camps or six- and nine-day sailing programs. But in the winter, the greying, foggy weather is cheered with Lantern Light Tours. Here, kids 10 and up become part of the Victorian Christmas drama as they help celebrate the season. Kids six to 11 can take a Plum Pudding voyage, a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the 19th-century coastal village.

Black Creek Pioneer Village is located at Jane and Steeles in northwest Toronto. Their Christmas by Lamplight program takes place Dec. 6 between 6:30 and 9 p.m; tickets are $21. If sold out, reserve for next year and enjoy Black Creek's regular Christmas programs held every day but Christmas Day until December 31. Call (416) 736-1733 for reservations. For Mystic Seaport's Lantern Light Tours in Mystic, Connecticut between Dec. 6 and 22, call (203) 572-5317. For the Holiday Lanthorn Walks at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia between Dec. 9 and 23, call 1-800-447-8679.





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