Party Like It’s 1769! Historic Sites Host X-Mas Events - NBC New York

Party Like It’s 1769! Historic Sites Host X-Mas Events

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    Ho ho ho! Santa Claus waves.

    Several historic sites in the Mohawk Valley are going to party like it's 1769.
     
    Events at six locations in Fulton and Montgomery counties are being staged in the manner of the Christmas celebrations commonly held there in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the often-raucous festivities centered around feasting, drinking and visiting with friends and neighbors.

      "The idea of Santa Claus and Christmas trees and presents really didn't become part of family celebrations until Thomas Nast did his cartoon with what we now associate with the big bearded figure of Santa Claus," said Wanda Burch, manager of the Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown, 40 miles northwest of Albany.
     
    The Heritage Holidays events are being held Friday through Sunday at four locations and at two locations the following weekend. The events feature period music and decorations, activities for children, and refreshments made from 18th-century recipes.
     
    The host sites include Johnson Hall, the estate of Sir William Johnson, a wealthy landowner and British government official in Colonial America.
     
    His Georgian mansion, built in 1763, was known as a favorite stopover for weary travelers venturing to what was then the American frontier. An Irish-born French and Indian War hero, Johnson was renown for providing sumptuous feasts for visitors who were often left astounded by the wilderness outpost's fine china, imported furnishings and plentiful libations.
     
    "He enjoyed his Madeira," Burch said. "He made sure there was always a good wine cellar, plenty of food, lots of the gracious amenities that one would expect from a generous host."
     
    As founder of Johnstown's Masonic Lodge, Johnson typically celebrated the feast of St. John, the patron saint of Freemasonry. The feast day falls in late December, and Johnson Hall's holiday event this weekend will recreate the St. John's Day gatherings Johnson hosted, Burch said.
     
    Some of the other host sites will be more akin to the St. Nicholas Day celebrations favored by New York's Dutch and German settlers, she said.
     
    The region's general mishmash of holiday celebrations 200-plus years ago reflected the melting-pot nature of the frontier settlements, according to Stefan Bielinski of the New York State Museum in Albany.
     
    "It's so ethnically diverse out there, with Dutch, English, Scots and Germans," said Bielinski, the museum's community historian and director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project. "Every ethnic group had their own holiday."
     
    But any holiday gathering was a welcome respite for frontier families after the rigors of the fall harvest, especially in a region known for severe winters.
     
    "You're pretty much buttoned up in your house, and in some cases trying to survive as the winter grew longer," Burch said. "So it was an opportunity to get together one more time before spring."
     
    Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the Mohawks, described a typical Mohawk Valley Christmas season celebration as "very affecting and striking."
     
    Valley settlers, he wrote in 1769, "generally assemble for reading prayers, or Divine service but after, they eat drink and make merry. They allow of no work or servile labour on that day and the following -- their servants are free -- but drinking swearing fighting and frolicking are not only allowed but seem to be essential to the joy of the day."
     
    Fort Johnson, another of William Johnson's 18th-century homesteads, is also hosting Heritage Holiday parties, which the two sites first began in the mid-1970s. Other locations taking part in the holiday event are the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter, the Fort Plain Museum, the Rice Homestead in Mayfield and Fort Klock in St. Johnsville.