Pulling The Plug On Nighttime Programs

By David Ochs
Photos Courtesy Of Don Sweeney, FCPA

Imagine planning a nighttime event in the winter without supplying heat or electricity. Instead, the Sully Historic Site in Virginia creates a holiday spirit, setting the house aglow with flickers of light that make visitors want to kick up their heels and join the shadows dancing on the walls.


The one-time home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress, provides an opportunity to portray life as it was lived in the early 1800s. Since the Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) obligation is to preserve Lee’s house (not update it), the staff members rely on fresh interpretive ideas to keep attracting visitors. This approach comes through careful selection and a presentation of themes that change seasonally and—on one special occasion—according to light.

Exploring the house at Sully only during daylight park hours doesn’t tell the whole story because the folks who originally lived there were at home at night, too. To extend an interpretation of the house to those evening hours, the FCPA annually hosts several candlelight tours during the December holiday season. The programs present 18 th -century life at night and pull double duty by interpreting Christmas customs of several different periods during the house’s occupancy. The low light of evening heightens the senses, and in that soft light the rich and glossy stair rails and the silver displays shine, the blue and white china glows, and the aromas from the kitchen seem more inviting.

When visitors stroll into the historic house, they pass from room to room, and  meet costumed characters of a past century involved in typical activities of that day—reading, cooking, sewing, and so forth. Guests are welcomed, and conversation rather than a lecture begins.

Past experiences have taught staff members that rooms with decorations and antiques without interpreters make a program quiet and sterile. Programming comes to life when living history interpreters enter each room to welcome guests.

The program is conducted by candlelight because that’s the way Lee’s family lived. Candlelight also creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood and experience. Visitors are an active part of the experience rather than merely an audience watching a performance.

In addition to the site’s regular docents, creativity in Sully’s candlelight program flourishes through the use of outside experts, people who have expertise in history, architecture, the Lee family, period clothing, candle making, or period cooking. They contribute not only information but a sense of gathering and community. They also are volunteers—absolutely essential elements for success. Sully’s program could not exist without them.

New Challenges Await Outside
Over the years, the program has been so successful that it is now heading outdoors to the house’s surrounding 120 acres. The site has an excellent array of preserved outbuildings—a kitchen with open-hearth cooking, a laundry, a connecting walkway, a smokehouse, a dairy, and a representative slave cabin.

The challenge is that, at night in December, not many people want to linger outside or tour unheated facilities. Sully staff members quickly learned to make cold-weather adjustments. The site’s representative

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 18 th 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 18 th -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 .