Christmas in the Sacandaga River Valley
Christmas is a time for family. Most families in the Sacandaga Valley lived what was considered right next door to each other, give or take a mile. Christmas Eve provided a time to gather together to share a meal or to attend midnight services held at churches.
Decorating the house provided an activity that involved tradition. With the many evergreen trees that grew in the Sacandaga River area boughs of spruce, balsam, and pine would be used to decorate the doors and windows . And of course provide a Christmas tree.
Traditions of decorating the Christmas tree are many. Most traditions came from European countries. Early trees were decorated with fruit particularly apples and nuts. These, along with the evergreen trees themselves, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring.
Over time, other fruits began to be added, along with paper streamers and bits of shiny metal foil. Whether a tree was lighted or not, the idea of reflecting the light in the room where the tree stood grew in popularity.
Food, often gingerbread or other hard cookies, would be baked in the shape of fruits, stars, hearts, angels and bells. Some people would string long strands of cranberries or popcorn.
Some early symbolisms of Christmas are:
Star: A heavenly signs of prophecy fulfilled long, long ago- The shining hope of mankind. The Candle: A mirror of starlight. Silver and gold: for the rich blessings bestowed on us .
The Bell: rings out to guide lost sheep back to the fold.
The Candy Cane: Represents the shape of the shepherd’s crook.
The Gift Bow: tied around a gift as we should all be tied together in bonds of goodwill forever.
The Wreath: A symbol of the never ending eternal value of love…having no end.
Garland: wraps around the tree like a mother’s arms wrapped around her babe, loving and protecting it.
John Lower, who was born in Germany in 1842, fought for the North in the American Civil War. He was taken prisoner and sent to Andersonville Georgia. From that experience an unusual Christmas ornament originated.
According to lore, in poor health and starving, Lower begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for Lower. According to family legend, Lower said that the pickle—by the grace of God—gave him the mental and physical strength to live on. Once he was reunited with his family Lower began a tradition of hiding a pickle on the Christmas tree. The first person who found the pickle on Christmas morning would be blessed with a year of good fortune.
The Civil War ended in 1865, but glass Christmas tree ornaments did not become popular in the U.S. until around 1880, when F.W. Woolworth began importing them from Germany.
The Christmas pickle has also been credited with coming from Germany. Confusion over this may have come from the fact that John Lower was German. However, one thing is certain the tradition is virtually unknown in Germany. In fact it is completely of American origin.
Christmas dinners consisted of ham, mashed potatoes, squash and other root vegetables, baked bread with home churned butter and pumpkin or mincemeat pie for dessert. Of course, if the family also hunted, venison or wild turkey might be on the table for a special Christmas dinner. And hard cider would be an acceptable drink.
Gifts among families were most commonly opened on the morning of Christmas Day; however, families may also choose to open all or some of their presents on Christmas Eve. Some were family traditions, which might have evolved from the age of the children involved. Small children might open their presents on Christmas Eve and the adults their presents on Christmas morning; or everyone might open their gifts on Christmas morning.
Presents were small and simple. Maybe children would receive a book or a handmade wooden toy. Lucky children might get new ice skates or a sled. Some children might even receive a toy they already had previously such as a wagon. But it would be redone with fresh paint and new wheels therefore saving the labor to make another or the cost in buying a new one.
Community activities in the Sacandaga Valley were another part of Christmas. In those early days the church or meeting house was a place to gather socially to celebrate the season. More than likely games were played among the children, carols were sung, and maybe decorating of a Christmas tree.
At the Riceville Homestead in Mayfield a Christmas open house is held yearly. The homestead was built in 1790 by Oliver Rice. The Mayfield Historical Society provides a step back in time with the holiday decorations with period style costumes worn by the volunteers . Warm cider and homemade treats can be enjoyed as you stand by a fire. Traditional music is played by local musicians to add to the air of the atmosphere.
A tradition in Northville is the placement of a blue star on top of the 5 and 10 store. Although no one knows who might have started it or when it started. The community looks forward to it every year as it heralds the coming of Christmas
Local lake communities still gather together today to share in the festivities . The lighting of a community tree and visits from Santa, church concerts, and many other activities still occur in Northville, Edinburg, Mayfield, Broadalbin, Fish House and Day.
by Lorraine Frasier