Christmas in the Old Days

  I feel deeply, the great honor conferred on me in your invitation to present reminiscences of Christmas in the old days at Hopedale, when I consider how many there are present who are better qualified, both by age and experience, to make this contribution to your program.

  Some five or six years ago, when serving as Chairman of the Christmas Committee, it occurred to me that a little preface to the regular exercises might be of interest, as so few who now attend the afternoon entertainment had any idea of what led up to the present arrangement.  I made a few notes, but unfortunately, between moving and other incidents due to the lapse of time, they were not preserved, and I am therefore obliged to make a fresh start.

  In these days of Christmas trees, public and private, in all religious denominations, it is difficult to realize that the evolution of the Christmas tree in this country covers comparatively few years; and that the little village of Hopedale was one of the pioneers in this line, some sixty years ago.

  It is desirable at the outset to remember that the Hopedale environment at that time was quite different.  Hopedale was a village of 200 to 300 people, in the town of Milford.

  Our highways included the present Main Street running from Mendon to Milford past Mr. O. B. Young’s, with Freedom Street at the northerly limit as the only other road to Milford.  Freedom Street at that time went to Mendon up the steep hill past the “Saltbox” place, now occupied by the Dillon family.  Hopedale Street connected the roads through the center of the place.  Dutcher Street, then called High Street, only existed in the imagination, with the exception of the short section connecting Social and Union streets.  The only road to the cemetery was a rough cart path through a succession of pastures; and in case of a funeral, it was necessary to pass through several pairs of bars.  There were no good sidewalks.

  The entire village did not include over fifty houses, nearly all for one family each.  There were only two houses west of the river, these being the one at the end of the pond, now occupied by Mr. Willard, and the Soward house directly back of it.  The only public building was the Chapel.  This is the building now occupied by Mr. Gilbert Arnold and adjoining the School grounds.  This Chapel was used for all gatherings, religious or secular, and on week days was occupied by the Public School.  It had a small bell tower at the end next the street and was equipped with a clock made by a local artist, Mr. Almon Thwing.  The bell was used for both School and Church.

  With this small isolated community, affairs of Church and State were closely identified. Up to 1856 all families, or at least one of the heads, belonged to the Community, and thus all church services and festivals were of general interest.  My first Christmas at Hopedale was in the year 1856, and to obtain earlier data I have looked over the file of the “Practical Christian,” a semi-weekly paper edited by Mr. Ballou and published from 1840 to 1860.  Unfortunately the earlier volumes were devoted more to local news, and the first mention of the local Christmas exercises at length, is in what was called the “Youths’ Department,” edited by Mrs. Margaret E. Fish, in the January 14th issue of 1854.  The following extracts are from three long columns of special report: — “Christmas Festival.”

  “The people of Hopedale had a Christmas festival on Saturday, Dec. 24th, commencing at 2:30 P.M.  The exercises commenced by singing an originally hymn, composed by Joseph Bailey.  A prayer was then offered by William H. Fish, which was succeeded by a welcome spoken by Eddie Hewitt, aged about eleven, after which we listened to a song from the infant class, “Let Us Love One Another.”

  An address was then delivered by Adin Ballou.  (I omit the summary of the address.)

  The address was followed by a song from the little children commencing, “I want to be an angel.”  We next listened to a declamation for Ida Albee, and another by Eben Bancroft, little children about six years of age.  Then Willie Fish and Willie Draper spoke the dialogue between William Penn and King Charles.  Two declamations followed, one by Ellen Walker, aged about nine, another by Amanda Albee, “The Best Use of a Penny.”

  “The Three Prayers” was then spoken by Lizzie Wentworth, about nine years of age: a declamation followed from Asa Inman five or six years of age.  Next we had a fairy song, which the writer of this sketch was not ethereal enough to understand.

          “Take the spade of perseverance,”
           “Dig the field of progress wide,”
was then spoken by Lizzie Humphry, about thirteen years of age.

  Then came some thrilling music performed by Willie Draper on the seraphine, Lyman Allen on the flute and W. W. Cook on the violin.  A piece was the spoken by Frances Draper, aged about six, entitled, “Is It Sunday?”  Little Susan Thwing then spoke a piece of poetry illustrating the mother’s love.  Next came a piece spoken by Joseph Harlow, aged about twelve, Asa Inman, Eben Bancroft, and Susan Thwing, showing the unhappiness arising from selfishness.

  The reporter goes on with an additional array of single declamations by Emily Sutcliff, Hattie Walker, Anne Munyan, Elisha Davis, Allen Price, Lucy Lillie and others.  Dialogues of two, four and six characters each are interspersed with extracts and descriptions.

  We then had some conundrums which were got up for the occasion by Joseph Bailey, and were in the form of a dialogue, and spoken by four young persons.  This excited some mirth which seemed to be relished  The exercises were closed by a song, “Good-night.”

  Midway in the program,  “came a simple repast of bread and butter, plain cake, and popcorn.”

  “About an hour before the speaking closed, the curtains which had through the afternoon concealed the Christmas tree, were drawn aside, and we were permitted to behold the pliant branches of the hemlock, drooping under a load of rich presents, whose varied colors were pleasing to the eye.  At seven o’clock in the evening the distribution of presents commenced.  There were four or five persons engaged in taking the presents from the tree and reading the names of those for whom the presents were hung.  After each article was announced, and the name of the person that was to possess it, it was put into the hand of some little girl to carry to the place where the person was seated.

  After the establishment of the Home School under the management of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. S. Heywood, in 1856, another feature was added, namely the dramatic number.  The program, as I remember it, included single pieces and short dialogues, to include all the village children, prayer and address by the available minister; songs by the children being sandwiched in at intervals.  Many of the people carried their suppers, eating them at intervals between the afternoon and evening parts of the entertainment.  At seven o’clock, or thereabouts came the tree, followed by a play or musical number. 

“Neighbor Jackwood” is one play that I recall.  Another year we had the Cantata of Esther.  Some of those present will remember the curtains, green at the center and alternate breadths of blue and reddish brown at the sides.  The church building erected in 1860 was provided with the same curtains, refitted, and the center curtains pieced out.  It was a job requiring the greatest skill to rig up these curtains for Christmas.  During the balance of the year they were stored in the attic.  The fact that it was too late for the children when the tree was not shown until evening, led to a change in the program.  For quite a number of years we commenced in the afternoon at one thirty or thereabouts.  The exercises included an anthem by the choir, prayer and address by the minister, dialogues, songs and recitations by the children usually with a piece introducing the tree.  The presents were distributed in the afternoon and it was often five o’clock by the time we adjourned.  In the evening there was a dramatic entertainment by local talent, the parts being taken in most cases by the young people.

  The Christmas committee was usually chosen on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  The Chairman was selected largely for his ability to pay the expenses. When the tree was at the Chapel, presents were left at the home of Mr. and Mrs. E. D. Draper and taken from there to the Chapel and hung Christmas forenoon.  When we moved to the Church, this arrangement was changed, and presents were taken by the committee the afternoon and evening before at the Church, the committee putting as many as practicable on the tree in the evening.  Someone prepared for emergencies, always remained in the Church overnight.

  One of the most effective plays ever put on was “The Chimney Corner.”  The stage setting was very realistic, showing an old-time room with the mantel and corner cupboard from the old house then recently torn down.  Mr. Wm. H. Humphrey and myself worked nearly the entire time between the closing of the afternoon entertainment until time to open in the evening in erecting this material for the stage.  That evening our local orchestra furnished the music, as we did in several other cases.

Frank J. Dutcher,
Hopedale, Massachusetts
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