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'Civil War Christmas' Unites Revelers With Traditions of 1865 : OC LIVE!


On April 9, 1865, in Virginia's Appomattox Court House, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender of Confederate forces, the final chapter in one of the bleakest periods of American history. In its four-year duration, the Civil War had claimed--in battle or by rampant disease--620,000 American lives.

So when Christmas 1865 neared, survivors on both sides must have felt a certain cause to celebrate, however bittersweet. Although they had lost loved ones and property, at least they could recapture the music, dance and some of the holiday spirit of their prewar past.

"A Civil War Christmas" seeks to relive those moments in history, by re-creating the sights and sounds typical of Christmas in 1865, this Saturday at the George Key Ranch in Placentia.

The facility's 1898 ranch house and the surrounding two acres of groves and outbuildings will be transformed into a rural homestead where Confederate and Union soldiers on their way home from the war will gather with locals to celebrate. The event will include performances and audience participation dances by the Yesteryear Dancers, mid-Victorian music by the Cottonwood String Band, old-fashioned Christmas decorations and food.

The ranch, purchased by the county in 1980 and one of six historical sites operated by the county's department of harbors, beaches and parks, is a portion of the original property of Canadian immigrant George Benn Key, one of the area's early civic leaders. The 2.2-acre site is open to the public only through arranged tours and for special events such as the annual "Christmas at the Ranch" celebrations.

Mike Miniaci, the park ranger who organized "A Civil War Christmas," says he has tried to re-create "that twilight period in history when the war was over, but the turmoil brought on by the Reconstruction had not begun."

"It was a happy time of soldiers coming home, families being reunited and people just making the best of what they had. We want to capture that sense of celebration and hopefulness."

Miniaci invited several reenactment groups from Southern California. The groups, each inspired by a particular Confederate or Union army battalion, are made up of Civil War enthusiasts who outfit themselves (at considerable personal expense) in replica uniforms, gear and artillery.

If you've seen the film "Gettysburg," you've seen reenactment enthusiasts in action, said Miniaci, a member of the Iron Brigade group. Nearly 5,000 enthusiasts from across the United States helped stage the battle scenes in the 1993 movie. You can often catch reenactments at places such as Irvine Regional Park and Oak Glen near Beaumont.

On Saturday the Key house will be decorated with fresh greenery, pine cones, paper chains and cornhusk dolls to fit the period. In keeping with traditions of the day, the dining room will be set for a "formal hospitality," in which visitors can enjoy a treat or some cider while mingling with Confederate and Union officers and festively dressed ladies. Outside, soldiers will greet the revelers from their encampments, and suttlers (traveling vendors who followed the troops) will sell hand-carved toys and other period items.

Irene Ujda, director of the Yesteryear Dancers--which will perform and involve viewers in such dances as the Virginia reel and the Lancers quadrille--maintains that, although celebrations may have been lean in 1865, the dances and formal clothing were among the most elegant in American history.

"There's nothing to compare with it," enthused Ujda, who encourages those coming to the ranch celebration to wear the appropriate period fashions for dancing. "You're all dressed up with feathers and flowers and pretty jewelry. . . . in the hoop skirt, your dress just wafts around you. It's wonderful going back to a period when ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen."

* What: "A Civil War Christmas" at George Key Ranch Historic Park.

* When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

* Where: George Key Ranch, 625 W. Bastanchury Road, Placentia.

* Whereabouts: Exit the Orange (57) Freeway at Yorba Linda Boulevard; drive east. Left onto Placentia Avenue, then left onto Bastanchury Road.

* Wherewithal: $3 general admission, $2 for children under age 12. Free parking at adjacent Sierra Vista Elementary school.

* Where to call: (714) 528-4260 or (714) 834-2400.

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