Historic sites to offer a look at past holiday celebrations
Colonists often hosted gatherings
FULTON & MONTGOMERY COUNTIES The modern holidays focusing on gifts and sales differ greatly from the days of the American colonists.
But one thing hasn’t changed much: People continue to gather with family and friends.
Several historic sites in the Mohawk Valley are opening their doors this and next weekend to continue that tradition.
Sites typically closed for winter are opening as part of Heritage Holidays in the Mohawk Valley, an effort to give people a chance to consider life centuries ago in the places where history was made.
Members of the Montgomery County Historical Society were decorating Old Fort Johnson earlier this week in preparation for a candlelight tour of the 1749 home of wealthy fur trader Sir William Johnson.
Museum Coordinator Alessa Wylie said colonists didn’t use Christmas trees, but gatherings were common.
“It wasn’t the tree and the holidays, it was more about visiting people,” Wylie said.
Those invited to Sir William Johnson’s functions most likely considered themselves lucky.
Johnson, the Irish-born entrepreneur who played a vital role in the French and Indian War and hosted gatherings of Native Americans, spared no expense when he hosted a gathering, Wylie said.
“In some of the Johnson Papers, he talks about getting orders of pickled lobster and all sorts of delicacies. If you got invited here to Fort Johnson, you were pretty lucky,” Wylie said.
If guests see any fruit used as decorations, Wylie said they should be considered out of place, historically.
“They would never have used fruit for decorations. They ate the fruit,” Wylie said.
Wylie said there was some commemoration of the birth of Jesus at least as far back as 1769, when missionary Samuel Kirkland wrote a letter quoted in “Documentary History of New York.”
Kirkland, writing about the manner in which people marked the day, said: “They generally assemble for read’g prayers, or Divine service — but after, they eat drink and make merry. They allow of no work or servile labour on ya day an dye follow’g — their servants are free — but drink’g swear’g fight’ and frolic’g are not only allowed but seem to be essential to ye joy of ye day,” Kirkland wrote.
One common beverage in the colonial days: Fish house punch. Wylie said it was “a little bit of everything.”
Rum was a popular spirit in Johnson’s days, Wylie said.
Johnson established a Masonic chapter in 1766, and a common event back then was the celebration of St. John’s Day. It took place between today’s Christmas and New Year’s, said Wanda Burch, site manager at Johnson Hall in Johnstown, Johnson’s home from 1763 to 1774. The event was filled with “feasting and drinking,” Burch said.