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Old Christmases

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Famous Christmas Poem by Moore Inspired by Memories of Old Newtown Homestead of His Grandparents.

'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.

When Clement Clarke Moore composed the immortal Christmas poem commencing as above at his home in New York City, he was in all probability thinking of the home of his grandparents in Newtown Village, where in the spacious farmhouse standing at what is now the junction of Woodside Avenue and Broadway the Christmas festivities of long ago were fully carried out.

This happy household was thus alluded to by a British officer who was quartered there during the Revolution. "I felt," he remarks in a letter to a friend, "great regret in leaving New York, where I had enjoyed the pleasures of social friendship amid a circle of worthy inhabitants--yes, I look back often with heartfelt satisfaction on the delightful scenes. The heightened joys that filled up every day even in the severity of winter months, in the sweet village of Newtown on Long Island, where we frequently had our quarters and cantonments.

I hope I may be indulged this small tribute of grateful remembrance and affection for many agreeable families of that place; to the Moores, of that neighborhood, I am particularly indebted, a family ancient and respectable; to the charms of their company, to the hospitable attentions of their numerous connections, I owe many hours of festivity and innocent mirth."

"The Rev. Benjamin Moore (father of Clement C. Moore) had been long eminent in his pastoral functions as a minister of the Episcopal Church; he is a clergyman of most amiable manners, humane, benevolent, affectionate; as much revered in private life as he is admired and distinguished in the pulpit."

"You will pardon this honest warmth of a susceptible heart. I could not omit this small tribute of gratitude for numerous proofs of affectionate esteem conferred on me by a worthy people."

And again John Davis, a private English gentleman, in a book of travels in the United States during the opening years of the eighteenth century and published in 1802, after speaking very highly of Bishop Moore, adds: "Farmer Moore of Newtown, brother of Bishop Moore of New York, (I love to give their names and kindred) always entertained me with a hearty welcome. Everyone acknowledged his daughter was charming: "A maiden never bold; Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion Blushed at itself." Indeed, the manners of the whole family were worthy of the Golden Age."

In this favored household, as well as in many others in the old town, the Christmas season in the olden time was one of jollity, mirth and good will in a considerably greater degree than at the present day. The old Dutch- English settlers of Newtown were fortunate in having a fatherland, and a vaderlandt, as well a mother country whose customs and traditions they would carry out to the fullest extremes at this festive season of the year.

To be sure at the first there was considerable friction between the Dutch and the English settlers, but this died out long before the time of which we treat (the early part of the last century) and ere long the entire community through intermarriages and a better understanding of each others' habits and ways were eating sauerkraut, kolichees and smoked goose and roast beef and plum pudding all together in a happy unity of spirit.

For weeks before the coming of the Yuletide season the thoughts of the children, to say nothing of those of their elders, were turning the good times now rapidly approaching, and when finally the eve of the great day arrived an immense log of hickory wood which had been selected some time before and christened the "Christmas log" was brought into the house and placed at the back of the yawning six-foot-wide fire-place to burn all through the night and on Christmas Day.

It was formerly believed at an early period, the general belief that on the night before Christmas the evil spirits, by reason of their spite and malice being increased by the birth of the Saviour, who was destined ultimately to destroy their power, were unusually busy in their efforts to injure mankind; and that it was necessary to use some extraordinary precautions to defeat their designs.

These logs being cut some time before, and destined for the hearth on that particular occasion, were supposed to acquire a degree of sanctity from that fact, and also being sufficiently large to burn through the night and the succeeding day, the light from their burning was believed to drive away all evil influences of a supernatural character, such a spirit fearing light and loving darkness: the expression "Yule cleugh," as applied to this custom, therefore, means a log burnt to drive away the evil spirits.

All the children of the household were on that night (Christmas Eve) allowed to sit up as long as they liked and watch the great log burn as their "holly" candles made in the shape of three branches, thus representing the Trinity.

Then came the hanging of the stockings, which consisted of suspending their nice clean woolen socks from a string in front of the fireplace, for it was the firm belief of the children of that day as well as many of the present that St. Nicholas, in the form of a jolly little old gentleman, in a cocked hat and breeches, with a great bag full of sugar plums would come down the chimney, which in all conscience was big enough, and fill their stockings to overflowing with the good things.

Any child that should express a disbelief in the visit of the saint would be looked upon by the others as little better than a heretic and was shunned by all his playmates.

With the Yule log smoldering on the hearth, and the stockings all hung in a row, the children would go to their beds and sleep soundly until the morning, while visions of sugar plums and toys galore danced through their heads. And then what a morning, with the house resounding to the shouts of glee, as the various stockings were discovered to be running over with good things to eat and surrounded with toys of all descriptions.

Then after the good things had been examined and talked over, the children would unite in singing the hymn commencing with "St. Nicholas, Good Holy Man," and their elders would after seeing that the Christmas logs were burning brightly, begin to prepare for the great feast of the day.

The festive board would be spread in one of the largest rooms in the house and would be laden down with good cheer of all kinds, which among the honest, good-natured, Dutch settlers consisted largely of cookies, pretzels, kiskatomas nuts, and Spitzenburgs, with hot spiced Santa Cruz and good strong Christmas beer and cider.

These at a latter day were replaced by iced and ornamental plum cake and many other kinds of true New Year's cakes and a variety of other choice edibles, together with Madeira, and other wines and cordials and liquors.

After the feast was over the remainder of the day was spent in playing games, social intercourse, or else, if the weather was fine, all hands would tumble into the big two-horse sleigh and a grand sleigh-ride over the hard-frozen snow to the merry accompaniment of jingling sleigh bells would be enjoyed.

Christmas would be quickly followed by the festivities of New Year's Day when it was the custom for the gentlemen to make a round of calls on their lady friends and indeed on all whom they had the slightest acquaintance with, or in many case, none at all.

In a paper of the times, called "The New Mirror Travellers" the editor, speaking of the celebration of New Year's Eve, in the good old Dutch way, and observing that it is also, as well as Christmas, under the especial patronage of Saint Nicholas, explained:

"To whomever (Saint Nicholas) fails in due honor and allegiance, be his fate never to sip the dew from the lips of the lass he loveth best on New Year's Eve or New Year's morn; never to take a hot spiced Santa Cruz; never to know the delights of mince pies and sausages; swimming in the sauce of honest mirth and heartfelt jollity."

In those days New Year's Day was ushered in with much noise and rejoicing. The men folks would gather together and go from house to house with their guns and fire salutes and and then they would be invited in and asked to partake of refreshments of all kinds, both solid and liquid. After liberally sampling the good things provided by the fair sex they would be joined by the men of the house and go on to the next lace, thus going through an entire locality, increasing in numbers as they went until all the houses in the neighborhood had been visited and all the men gathered together, they would repair together, they would repair to some convenient place and pass the remainder of the day in athletic sports.

Within the recollection of the author of this article the custom of calling on the ladies was in full vogue, men going singly, in pairs or in groups and making as many as forty or fifty calls during the day and the following evening.

At each house refreshments would be partaken of and the congratulations of the season given, and, alas, many found that they had partaken of the good things so generously provided by the fair sex not wisely but too well at the end of a perfect day.

During the week between Christmas and New Year's all the various schools in Newtown Village, now Elmhurst, would hold their annual festivities and it was the custom for all the young people as well as their elders to attend each festival in turn, each being held on a different night.

The snow seemed to come oftener and stay longer forty years than it does today and the streets of the village and the outlying roads would be filled with merry sleighing parties either in big double sleighs holding a dozen or so, or in single cutters built for two, while the air would echo with the sound of sleigh bells in every direction.

Another favorite resort for the young people in those days was Barclay's pond, a large sheet of water covering about an acre of ground and located a little north of Woodside avenue, midway between Winfield and Elmhurst.

It was on the Barclay estate in the rear of the Penfold farm and was a very secluded spot, surrounded by trees and bushes.

Here in the winter season the lads and lassies shot in glittering steel would snap the whip and cut the figure eight as they glided over the frozen surface of the water and in the long summer days the boys made it their favorite pool.

Today while the festivals of the Sunday schools are still maintained in all their old vigor, Barclay's pond and the sleighing parties are things of the past. Many a child of the present generation has never seen an old-time sleigh and a horse-drawn vehicle of any kind they regard as quite a curiosity, thanks to the advent of the automobile, while the pond has been filled in and residences and streets cover its site.

Also New Year's calls are now regarded as being entirely out of date, the dropping of that custom being largely due to its having been very much over done.

But Clement C. Moore's immortal Christmas poem is still a reigning favorite with the children who are never tired of hearing and reciting it. The poet's ancestral home with all its memories long ago vanished and the walls of a great apartment house, the modern successor of the old-time family homestead, stand on its site, but the memories of the site which inspired him to write as he did still linger, and perhaps if we listen on a quiet Christmas Eve we may even now hear the echo of the voice of the dear old saint as he cheerily sings:

A Merry Christmas to all,

And to all a good night.

Compiled by Clare Doyle, Librarian, Greater Astoria Historical Society.

For more about the history of Newtown's role in the history of Christmas, read Visions of Sugar Plums by Dorothy Speer.