Christmases of the Past – November 2017 Edition of History & Heritage

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located at 421 Summer Street.  Our winter hours are Monday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers.

Please mark your calendar for December 9th from 1:00 to 4:00 for our Holiday Open House. Refreshments will be served, crafts for the kids will be available, St. Johnsbury Players Exhibit will be highlighted by members in costume and the carriage barn will be open.

This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

Christmases of the Past

The arrival of the holiday season could have caught us off guard as we just finished the warmest October on record! But I am well aware that the cold and snow have found us as the woodpile takes a hit and the snowflakes are drifting by my window!  Needless to say, the change in the temperature makes it easier to focus on the holidays. The media keeps pushing the season; a while ago you couldn’t get the meat off the turkey before you were reminded of what was coming; now the ghosts and goblins don’t get a chance to go back to their hiding places. So let us go back and see what “before TV” tells us.  In 1938, a series of old time stories were written by Arthur Fairbanks Stone for the Caledonian Record celebrating the 85th Anniversary of the Passumpsic Savings Bank in St. Johnsbury. In one of the columns, he tells of the first Christmas tree being the principal attraction at the South Congregational Church on December 24, 1863. The “first” consisted of two, fifteen foot fir trees, illuminated with candles and brightly decorated and standing on the platform up front. Gifts for the Sunday school were in abundance having been acquired by Supt. Ephraim Jewett who had made a special trip to Boston. There were gifts for everyone including adults, James K. Colby, and Honorable Jonathan Ross who received Mother Goose Melodies. The minister, Rev. Lewis O. Brastow, had recently returned from nearly a year spent as chaplain of the Twelfth Vermont Regiment in the Civil War. Edward Fairbanks, who wrote St. Johnsbury’s history through 1911, tells us that the fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated with a twenty foot spruce at the South Church with candles being replaced by colored electric lights.

Edward Fairbanks speaks of the first public observance of Christmas being held at the Universalist Meeting House in the Center in 1846. In the corners of the House, fir trees were planted and in the top of each tree a white dove, perched as a symbol of peace, was the only decoration. I was reminded of this dove after a visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia, where the dove is center stage atop the cupola of the mansion. This Meeting House stood at the North West corner of the Center Village burial ground until fire destroyed it in July of 1876.

Many years ago – two generations back – I asked several people about their Christmas memories, and here are a few. My great Aunts, Fernie and Florence Day remembered going down in their own woods, in Lunenburg, and getting their tree. They had very few decorations so they decorated the tree with new mittens, hair ribbons and socks – there were seven girls!! Florence recalled around Christmas, “Our dolls would disappear and our Mother would take them to Lancaster and get new heads for them. She’d make clothes for them so we had a good-as-new doll for Christmas.”

Eleanor Fuller Peters remembered her early Christmases in St. Johnsbury, one being a big Christmas party at the North Congregational  Church in the chapel area in the afternoon of the 24th of December. “The Fairbanks family gave each child a little red box of hard candy and an orange – nice big one. Santa Claus always came and the chapel area was decorated with a great big tree that the Frank Lawrence’s always donated. The place would be packed.” She went on to recall one memorable present. “I remember one very happy Christmas, Mother took three peach baskets (about as wide as a strawberry basket only twice as long) and made three basinets – pink, yellow and blue – complete with patchwork quilts, pillows and a small celluloid doll which Mother had made a flannelette nightie for.”  At Christmas time in their home they “made popcorn balls which was a family affair with Dad popping corn down by the furnace. We always strung popcorn and cranberries for our trees,” she added.

Ruth (Cormier) Crane remembered her early Christmases in St. Johnsbury Center. One of her fondest memories was shopping day with her folks in St. Johnsbury. She remembers going in the “model A with a buffalo robe for warmth.” A very popular event was the Christmas program put on by the school at the Church. “This was put on by all eight grades with the 6th, 7th and 8th grades putting on a nativity pageant. It was quite elaborate with costumes. There was a large tree with a present for each child; Santa Claus came down the aisle.” The Cormier’s always had a tree and the decoration that Ruth remembers were “little five inch tall cone shapes – sort of like rolling a piece of paper in a cone shape – they were silvery and had candy in them.”

Most everyone spoke of oranges – it was a real treat. Memories of the past warm the hearts at this time of the year. One of my memories as my family grew was that of another family making “buckeyes” and I am keeping my fingers crossed that that memory comes back. My grandparents, Fred and Lucia Johnson, had the best ribbon candy and my 98 year old Aunt Alice made great caramels!

Back to Arthur Stone’s article in 1938 – another tradition continues, when he writes, “The splendid work of our firemen in repairing toys and furnishing to the children hundreds of useful gifts is but another exhibition of the spirit of Christmas and the Boy Scouts will be busy next Saturday distributing the many gifts given by friends, merchants and many of our local clubs. The Girl Scouts will have a part in the Christmas observance as they gladden the shut-ins with their Christmas carols.” In a good way, maybe the old saying fits – “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

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