The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget #14,
23 December 2010

KYPP Nugget: Christmas Stew

Alexander Anderson Cutting Wood
Alexander Anderson’s depiction of 19th century rural winter life. Certainly, many spent this time of year in such winter pastimes and duties as skating and cutting wood.

  We're breaking with one tradition (waiting three weeks after publication before sending out the e-version of our KYPP Nugget) for the sake of another, more important tradition (the holiday season). While you may not all celebrate Christmas, think of this as a short archeological excavation of sorts in which the shards and trinkets being excavated happen to be from the 'Christmas culture'.

   We hope you all have a good end to the year and a peaceful, fulfilling 2011.

Perhaps a bit posed, but they look ready to go... (This and all other images on this page are from the great on-line digital images archive of the New York Public Library.)

by Conrad Vispo.

   This small essay is, I suppose, a bit like reaching into a Christmas stocking and seeing what your hand draws out.  In this spirit and with winter weather ensconced on our doorstep, we plunged into our collection of old books and publications to see how they alluded to Christmas. Such an approach is hardly one that leads to a tightly reasoned essay; rather it produces a happy jumble which, with little effort to tie up loose ends (after all this is the holiday season), we pass along to you as a Christmas stew.

Central Park Ice Skating
Late 19th century skating in Central Park, NYC.

    One of the first things that strikes a digger for bibliographic Christmases is the variety of books containing references to Christmas because of the fact that the date is often used as a convenient mental milestone in the yearly calendar. In the 19th century, Christmas was, for example, the recommended date for completing land drainage or preparing hams; it was the date upon which some manorial tenants paid their landlord two fat geese in lieu of rent; it was the date after which one 17th century Albany apprentice was to be sent to evening school; on this day in 1863, a 60 (!) year old English pony died; on another farm, it was the day that wolves got into the pigs. Because of its convenience, Christmas was probably pinned with a few recollections that occurred only “thereabouts”!

    Christmas as a marker dances through historical accounts of winter weather – one new arrival to the continent and to NYC in the early 1800s “worried [his] neighbours half to death” in order to learn about the weather. He was told “there would be no very hard weather till after Christmas.” He seemed a bit baffled by the nuance between “hard” and “very hard”. Early accounts from elsewhere in the Northeast also pin Christmas as the date for the onset of winter weather, the time when carts were stored and sleighs brought out. Perhaps because we are more apt to remember the weather of past Christmases, as opposed to that of less feted dates, 19th century writers describing climate change (and there were a few) documented it by noting the increasing mildness of Christmastime.

Katerskill Falls    The composition of our little library (and of our work) is belied by the fact that it contains more references to the preparations for the Christmas table than of the Christmas table itself. Farmers went to lengths (as some still do) to insure that their pigs, beeves, lambs and fowl were fattened and ready to be slaughtered for the Christmas markets. Such arrangements required planning ahead not only in terms of when to introduce ram to ewe and the like, but also in terms of choosing animal breeds willing to even mate at the requisite times of year.

    Botany, another branch of our endeavors, likewise is heavily represented in our pot – one 19th century botanist bemoaned the destructive harvesting of Club Moss and Mountain Laurel for Christmas greens while another noted the untoward effects when a set of trained goats nibbled such Christmas Laurel finery. If nothing else, botanists took it as cause to review their local winter greenery. Susan Fenimore Cooper in her book, Rural Hours (well worth reading), described a cart she met in the woods over near Cooperstown on the 19th of December 1848. It was “well loaded with Christmas greens for our parish church. Pine and hemlock are the branches commonly used among us for the purpose; the hemlock, with its flexible twigs, and the grayish reverse of its foliage, produces a very pretty effect. We contributed a basketful of ground-pine [i.e. certain kinds of club moss; for more on club mosses, try the first few pages of this link from the University of Wisconsin], both the erect and running kinds, with some glittering club-moss and glossy pipsissiwa.” [For those of you who are botanists, the pipsissiwa referred to was probably
Chimaphila umbellata; McVaugh recorded it from Columbia County, Claudia hasn't seen it; it's closely related to Spotted Wintergreen, and both have green leaves in winter.]

   And yet Christmas, and the hallowed days of other religions and cultures, are, at heart, not a recipe composed of specific ingredients – be they wind, pigs or holiday plants. Instead, they are a time of collective feelings that arise from traditions made special in our own individual worlds. As such, little can connect us as strongly with past Christmases as recollections of such hearths, real or figurative. And so we close the serving of our Christmas stew with quotes describing the spirit of a few past Christmases, candied as they might be by sweet nostalgia.MN ice cutting

    Susan Fenimore Cooper continued her account with a description of Christmas 1848, “There is a saying in the village that it always rains here on Christmas; and, as if to prove it true, there is a heavy mist hanging upon the hills this morning, with rain falling at intervals in the valley. But even under a cloudy sky, Christmas must always be a happy, cheerful day; the bright fires, the fresh and fragrant greens, the friendly gifts, and words of good-will, the "Merry Christmas" smiles on most faces one meets, give a warm glow to the day, in spite of a dull sky…”

    Elizabeth Gebhard wrote (in The Parsonage between Two Manors, a description of early 19th century days in Claverack) that “good children … stood in a row before the great roaring fires, and hand in hand sang,[in Dutch] ’Santa Claus, good holy man, Go your way from Amsterdam, From Amsterdam to Spain, From Spain to Orange, And bring these little children toys.’ Some of the gifts on the following morning took the form of seed-cakes, representing almost every animal on the farm.”
    And the “toothsome” food. Mrs. Fred Rundell, describing 19th century Christmas in Spencertown [in the book, And So It Was: Yesteryear in the Punsit Valley], recounted, “the house was redolent with the odor of spices and the warm fragrance of gingerbread. On the kitchen table was a milk pan full of freshly made fried cakes…in round balls and sugar coated. On the pantry shelf meekly reposed the big rooster which so recently had challenged the world from the top rail of the barnyard fence. Fires burned in the chunk stoves in the parlor and settin’ room, and in the fireplace.”
    Amid all this plenty, it is perhaps fitting to close with the words of one 1850s contributor to the Albany-based Cultivator: “Mother earth”, he said, should get Christmas presents too, after all, if a lack of presents and of other good treatment should cause “the old lady” to depart, “what would become of all of you professional men, merchants, mechanics? …Think of these things, and treat the dear old lady better.”

    So cheers from us to all of you during this holiday season and at least one ‘raising of the mug’ to the land itself.

unk New England 1870
The location of this scene is, according to the New York Public Library,
unknown. So, if you recognize the church, let us know...