Christmas in Historical Wheatland - Inspirations from Simpler Times
The Christmas holidays were much different in Wheatland's earlier days than in more recent times. In the early years of Wheatland, there was little merriment on Christmas. Some of our first settlers were the McPhersons, the Campbells and the McVeans who came to the Mumford and Caledonia area from Scotland in the late 1700s. They were all staunch Presbyterians whose church leader, John Knox, had banned any Christmas festivities in Scotland, a ban that lasted for many years.
The Quakers, another group of early Wheatland settlers, did not celebrate Christmas Day. Mary Thorn, whose family lived in Chili, worshipped at the cobblestone Quaker Meeting House on Quaker Road. Her 1855 diary is part of the Wheatland Historical Association collection. On December 25, 1855, she wrote,
“The “merry Christmas” that is so much doted upon by some, has at last gone by— yet to me has been no different from all passing days. Our folks have been grinding sausage meat! and grease has been the order of the day. The snow fell a number of inches, and the prospect is favorable for a little sleighing.”
Although New York State officially recognized Christmas as a legal holiday in the 1840s, we have little information about how it was observed in Wheatland in those days. We know that there were family gatherings, some with sumptuous meals, as well as church and school activities. Richard LeRoy has inherited the 1852 diary of Libby Hall, a young Scottsville girl. Her family’s Christmas included social events at a “Hall” and a “Lyceum” that are not identified.
“Dec. 25th, Saturday. Christmas. Arose late, and after a very late breakfast went over to the Hall to finish the sale of our articles. Hattie and her party started for home about ten. Returned home about noon, and made preparation for an oyster Christmas party. The company, which was small, arrived about half past nine, having first gone to the Lyceum, and we had some fun.”
Of course, the Civil War years were a very bleak time for everyone in our country. John Pixley Munn’s 1862 diary expressed the mood of the Wheatland people.
“This has not seemed much like Christmas. All the boys have gone off to fight in this hellish war. A great many of them have been killed in this last battle. The state of the country is and has been continually getting worse. [My cousin] Frank [Hanford] has gone away and on the whole this has been a sad Christmas to many.”
The large family of our famous barn builder, John Talcott Wells, got together to exchange gifts and enjoy dinner together on Christmas. In spite of the fact that he left behind many diaries and journals, the descriptions in them are very sketchy.
“Monday, December 25, 1865 Had a good time. Got one scarf, one handkerchief, one pair of slippers.”
The one-room district schools in Wheatland had a Christmas program every year. Teachers were able to purchase booklets of recitations and short plays that were memorized and performed by the pupils along with musical numbers and group singing. The program was usually held in the evening. All the families came, and small gifts were exchanged. This photo at the left shows the pupils of Wheatland District No. 4 School on the night of their Christmas program in 1905. A handwritten program lists the performances. Edwin Cox gave the opening recitation as well as one entitled “Santa Claus on the Telephone.” Martha Giles recited “Two Little Stockings.” Other participants were members of the Brooks, Wittman and Coates families. The teacher in the photo is not identified. Even after the district schools were closed, the tradition continued. In 1956 the Wheatland-Chili High School presented their annual Christmas play, this time written by student Lynne Estes.
In 1911, there was an article in the Caledonia Advertiser with the headline “Christmas Music in the Scottsville Churches.” At St. Mary’s Church, soloists were Mrs. E T. Swain, Edward Friedell and Misses Agnes and Monica Kelly. The Offertory was to be “Adeste Fideles.” On Sunday morning at the Presbyterian Church the choir sang as well as Mrs. W. J. Howe. In the evening there would be recitations by the children and songs by the school. Communion services were to be held at Grace Episcopal on Christmas morning at 9 o’clock.
The stores along Scottsville’s Main Street advertised special items for Christmas. Here are some of the features from the early 1900s. The Dunn Brother’s store was in a building located where the former bowling alley now stands.
Cox and Comfort operated their grocery from about 1908 until 1913 on the corner of Main and Church Streets in the building now occupied by the Scottsville Diner. The times were much simpler in these days. Nuts, candies and fruits were exciting gifts. People’s wants and expectations were more minimal during these times. The joy of Christmas was found in the fellowship and love of friends and family and in the hope for peace on earth.