When you live as I do in one of America’s oldest and once wealthiest cities, opportunities to participate in events rich in heritage and custom are ample.
Case in point: The Hamilton Hall Christmas Ball.
Held annually since, we think, the 20s, but surely inspired by similar events dating back to the Hall’s earliest nineteenth-century days, the Ball benefits the Hall, which features one of America’s first sprung ballroom floors and has played host to the Marquis de Lafayette as well as nearly every leading American intellectual as part of its ongoing subscription lecture series (bouillon is served before).
The engraved invitation to Saturday’s ball identified the six patronesses whose function besides bowing to all the guests who are presented to them at the start of the evening is unclear. Also unclear: who is responsible for organizing and nominating patronesses? (I think the secret sewing societies do this, though I still don’t really understand what they are either other than that they have little to do with sewing.) Also, why no patrons and why no female ushers?
For as traditional as the gender roles and long-standing the customs (being ushered to the patronesses, bourbon punch, midnight grand promenade), there’s actually a fair bit of vigor and innovation.
Since the ball begins at 21.30, dinners are hosted all over town. I went to two: one hosted by young married couples, and one hosted by younger un-married couples. Though I’d only been to the Ball once before, I found myself explaining the procedure of being ushered in and the necessity of sticking around until midnight in order to participate in the grand promenade to Hamilton Hall Ball virgins. This society is not completely closed.
From the upstairs supper room where coffee and dessert is served, I could walk out onto the gallery and observe the dance floor (these Baptist bones still don’t dance).
What I saw was really quite inspiring. At first glance, a run-of-the-mill well-attended black-tie affair, but when I looked closer I noticed creative inter-racial, generational, and gender pairings. The darkest-skinned Indian eye doctor dancing with the fairest anglo. Pairings that would scandalize many church potlucks, but are now de riguer in Salem society.
The patronnesses and their sea captain husbands who populated the first Hamilton Hall balls would recognize a lot in the modern ball, though they might now be scandalized by how the exoticism they went to the ends of the world to exploit has made its way into their hallowed hall.
How long before we see some a patron or two?