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Christmas In Colonial Chemung, 1788

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MaryEllen

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“Silent night, Holy night”. Christmas festivities in colonial America were in stark contrast to the celebrations and preparations of modern day. Christmas was celebrated by early settlers of Chemung and throughout the newly formed United States of America. New York was the 11th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution on July 26th, 1788, the same year the Town of Chemung was established. Although the celebrations would not have been as elaborate as those in the cities or of the wealthy, a modest celebration would have taken place. It has been noted in writings of how generous and extravagant George Washington was on Christmas to his family, guests and servants. The Christmas of 1788 found our Country without a President, it being run instead by the Confederation Congress.[ii] The election held for the First President of the United States of America actually ran from Monday, December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789. No doubt politics would have been a newsworthy item spoken around the dinner table. Whether or not the settlers in Chemung were given the opportunity to vote is not known.

Decorations would have been very simple by today’s standards. The German settlers most likely would have brought a small tree into their home. If they had the means to do so they might have adorned the tree with candles. New England Puritans preached against frivolity and the pagan heathen traditions of Christmas trees, Christmas carols and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.”[iii] Although there were hymns, Christmas Carols weren’t actually sung until the later part of the 19th century.

Fruit of any kind was too precious to be wasted on decorations. You would not have seen any apples or other fruit adorning the mantel. The home and church might have been adorned with what was called the "sticking of the Church" with green boughs on Christmas Eve. Garlands of holly, ivy, and mountain laurel were hung from the church roof, the walls, and perhaps the primitive church benches. Lavender, rose petals, and pungent herbs such as rosemary and bay were scattered throughout the churches, providing a pleasant holiday scent. Scented flowers and herbs were chosen partially because they were aromatic and thus were considered an alternative form of incense.[iv]

Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians celebrated the traditional Christmas season with both religious and secular observances in the Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and in the South. However, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in parts of New England by Calvinist Puritans and Protestants. [v]

By the 18th century, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Christkind or Kris Kringle might have made an appearance at Christmastime to leave a gift. Similar figures were a jolly elf named Jultomten, who was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats and Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Babouschka and La Befana; depending on the nationality of the family home.[vi]

Although private celebrations would have been held in the confines of some of the first log cabins and frame homes in the town, it is possible that some of the families came together to celebrate with bible readings and prayers provided by family members. Little is known about the first church erected in the Town of Chemung. It sat on the bank of the Chemung River several miles from what is now “Chemung Proper” on the south side of the river. Travel to the church especially in the cold winter months would have been difficult. A ferry would have been needed to traverse the icy water in December. For those living on the south side of the river, their difficulties would have been to travel the rutted path with their families. At that early a time in the history of the town, there were few horses or oxen and little or no carts or wagons. Most settlers would have traveled by foot. It was here where “The beginning of Christian Organizations in Chemung and Neighboring Valleys” was organized. “The site of the first church of any denomination in Chemung Valley.” It was “organized September 2, 1789 by Roswell Goff, Pastor and William Buck, John Hillman, Peter Roberts, John Roberts, Jesse Locey, John VanCamp and Elizabeth Hillman. (All Baptists)”. (A monument, located ¼ mile from the site of the church can be seen today on the Wilawana Road, located approximately 2 miles east of Wellsburg at what is known today as the Tanner Farm.)

A small gathering met in worship, according to the early minutes of the Wellsburg Church. From this beginning, the Baptist Church grew, expanding to the building of a Meeting House in 1812 on land purchased by Abner Wells for 50 cents.[vii] The log cabin church and a cemetery were washed away in a flood. There are no remains today and no record of burials in the cemetery.

Traditions from various nationalities were brought with the early settlers from their homes in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and other New England States and from their homes across the Atlantic. Many of the earliest settlers arrived between the years 1788 and 1791. Depending on when they began homesteading and growing crops, their harvest and winter supplies of food may have been lean for several years. If they had a roof over their head, a warm fireside and enough food to eat, along with the courage and fortitude to better their circumstances, they were wealthy in their own right. “All is Calm, All is Bright”. 

Merry Christmas to All,
Mary Ellen Kunst

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