Published: December 7, 2021
If you have annual seasonal memories of visiting a historic site like Old Sturbridge Village to travel back in time to experience how holidays were celebrated ‘back in the old days,’ you will appreciate how much Covid-19 impacted those holiday traditions. To keep attendance for immersive and experiental holiday programming up as much as possible, the creativity of staffers at these venues was tested and tapped. We had the opportunity to speak with Rhys Simmons, the Director of Interpretation at Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) for a peek behind the scenes of what OSV has done during these challenging times, and the results of those efforts.
Your first job at Old Sturbridge Village was a farmer? When was that and tell our readers what that entailed?
I was fortunate to learn farming while working at Old Sturbridge Village, having no experience working on a modern farm. I came to the museum in the summer of 2005 as a college student studying secondary education. History and education were a strong interest of mine, and as a person who learns best with a hands-on approach, the Village quickly became a great place for me to learn, grow and work. Understanding the depth of knowledge and various skills of Nineteenth Century farming from a talented group of experienced historical farmers was a great experience. OSV staff’s knowledge and passion for history is one of the museum’s greatest assets.
Did you have other roles at the village prior to working on OSV’s holiday programming?
During my tenure at the museum, I have had several roles. First, as a seasonal historical interpreter who worked on the farm, in the potter’s shop, in the three water-powered mills, and I ran our games and family programs. Then I spent most of the next ten years in various roles working on – and managing – the farm and the trade shops. In 2015, I was promoted to Director of Interpretation, overseeing all historical interpretation and related programming, including OSV’s holiday programming.
What were the circumstances for you overseeing holiday programming?
OSV’s ‘Christmas by Candlelight’ was a program that started in the early part of the 2000s. The program intended to use the museum’s natural, immersive setting to engage our guests in the holiday traditions. The program has evolved and grown throughout the years and become a tradition for thousands of families across New England. Although outside the museum’s traditional focus, which is rural New England in the 1830s, ‘Christmas by Candlelight’ still educates and engages in conventional interpretive methods developed by Old Sturbridge Village throughout the years. Focusing on the history of the holiday traditions, we can both entertain and educate the visitors as they are immersed in the decorated village.
Do you have a role in other seasonal events?
Yes, we also have had several successful Halloween-focused events throughout the years. From a family-friendly “Bump in the Night” program to our theatrical run of “Sleepy Hollow,” and most recently, the blend of the two programs in our newest “Phantoms and Fire” event. Throughout the years, OSV has honored and celebrated most major and minor holidays and seasonal activities. These include our Fourth of July celebration, Thanksgiving, Earth Week, Juneteenth, Mother’s Day, Maple Harvest, Presidents’ Day, Redcoats to Rebels, Women’s History and Craft Weekend, among many others. Each of these events engages our visitors with a targeted theme.
How has OSV’s holiday programming changed? Have you been instrumental in making any of those changes?
Our Christmas program has grown dramatically. It started as a program telling our audience why Christmas was not celebrated in New England in the Nineteenth Century. In 2006, OSV decided to go all-in on Christmas, closing the museum during the day to focus on the evening program. Since then, our program has grown from a few thousand guests in a year to well over 20,000. My main role during the Christmas program is to support our talented staff execute their beautiful ideas in programs, decoration, contests, musical performances, storytelling and many others.
What changes did Covid necessitate?
For the safety of our visitors and staff during 2020, we needed to move all of our Christmas programming outside. We had to let go of many of the traditions we loved to show, and our visitors loved to experience inside many of the buildings. This year, we can bring back most of those traditions while continuing to make new and better ones each year.
Anything you’d like to try or are working to implement in future years?
I want to continue to grow the program while keeping the core elements that make our ‘Christmas by Candlelight’ program a tradition. As a general statement for holiday and special programming, I would like to continue to utilize our wonderful immersive setting to give the visitor a sense of a different time and place, feeling welcome and engaged in meaningful experiences.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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