Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut

A Centennial Perspective Then and Now

December 6, 2021
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Christmas in Connecticut! It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? As sweet as the jingle of a century’s old sleigh bell. From the moment that Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan romanced their way into the hearts of the American public in the 1943 film classic Christmas in Connecticut, the very idea of a snowy New England Christmas in our state etched a place in our dreams. Those of us lucky to live here know the glories of just that reverie, which includes white Christmases, fires roaring in the hearth, charming homes with frosted roofs, and candles in every window. We are a state that moves forward as we cling to our history and traditions. Last year, Christmas joy was overshadowed by the pandemic. But this situation is not unique. We were under similar duress one hundred years ago. Maybe now is a good time to reflect and become time travelers going back to that era of our predecessors. If others could get through coping with such challenges, perhaps, so can we.

One Connecticut Boy’s Memoir

Don Carson, in 1921, was a handsome, rosy-cheeked 15 year-old boy. That Christmas season, he trudged along the driveway heading toward his home, an estate in Farmington Village. Big flakes floated down upon the powdery drifts. A gentle coral alpenglow cast light on the foothills off in the distance where the scudding clouds briefly revealed a glimpse of sun. Don could hear the jingle of sleigh bells pulled by horses trotting through the center of town like in a scene from Currier and Ives. Sleighs and horses were still very practical transport in the villages of Connecticut back then. Donald and his friends had been skating on a frozen pond, flirting with charming girls who exchanged confidences and chattered of their plans for holiday visits.

Donald’s foster mother, heiress and philanthropist Theodate Pope, would be welcoming 200 children from the village later that day. Her chauffeur was to don his classic Santa Claus outfit replete with paper-maché mask and beard to greet the cheerful throngs. It was a custom for high society ladies like Theodate throw themselves into caring for those less fortunate, especially at Christmas. Don and his brother Paul felt mortifyingly shy when his mother marched them into the living room to greet the village kids. Yet he knew somehow in his heart she insisted on introducing him because she was so proud to call him her son.

Theodate, even with her great wealth, always had kept a modest household at Christmas. There were wreaths on first floor windows and a Christmas tree. Gifts for her family were gloves, hats, books, writing tablets, and crayons. But that week, Theodate had lovingly hand-wrapped presents for all the Farmington children and unloaded crates filled with the most exciting gift–fresh oranges shipped in from the south.

Donald’s recorded memories serve as beautiful window into Christmas in Connecticut 100 years ago. At first glance, Donald’s childhood appears quite elite. After all, he grew up in what is now known as Hillstead Museum, a rambling estate filled to the brim with impressionist masterpieces. But life for Donald had not always been so cheerful. In 1921, just like now, society had been haunted by pandemics. During that era, Spanish Influenza, Polio, and Tuberculosis had been stalking the world.

After Donald’s father died, his mother also became very ill. He and his siblings drew straws; Don pulled out the shortest one, which meant he’d be separated from his family and sent into foster care. A female “Daddy Warbucks” of sorts, Theodate took Don into her home, welcoming him with love and dedication. According to Melanie Bourbeau, curator of the Hillstead, people visit the Museum throughout the year, especially during the December holiday season to enjoy the tasteful décor, the events, and works of art.

Decking the Halls One Century Ago

Christmas trees were so popular in 1921 that the Courant mentioned a serious Christmas tree shortage in shops. Others that year still happily went into the woods and cut down their own. Trees had a specific shape in the 20s–wide and stout, with tops lopped off so that just the broadest portion remained. Their large girths were elaborately decorated, the fatter the better. The tree was a riotous affair full of decorations haphazardly hung, draped with an array of popcorn and cranberry garlands. Silvery leaded tinsel hung from each branch along with scads of homemade ornaments. Martha Stewart would likely not approve, but to those of that era, it was vintage chic. Candles on the boughs had once been common, although, around that time, they were being phased out in lieu of new-fangled electric lights.

People were not used to large amounts of presents under the tree as they are today. Instead, they compensated for that by creating miniature villages with little trains circling the whole affair. Nowadays, when folks want decorative Christmas villages, they simply get on Amazon and order away, but one hundred years back, much of what one found under the tree was handmade. Classic Lionel Trains from the local hobby shop made the rounds–perfect replicas of real trains and every boy’s dream. According to those in the know, red bells of honeycombed tissue paper hanging from the ceiling were an additional new craze, the finishing touch on a welcoming home. Postcard greetings were the norm. Some of these vintage cards have survived and can be found in antique stores throughout the state. Christmas Seals that decorated the postcards of 1921 were dedicated to fund research for the eradication of TB.

Christmas Past

Just as we now wish for COVID to come under control, people 100 years ago were hopeful for Spanish Influenza to be vanquished forever. Relief from the flu allowed for groups to gather at parties and crowded events. Wounded Veterans from World War I had just returned to a hero’s welcome. They were highly esteemed for their service, taking center stage in the concerns of the public. It wasn’t easy for many to restart their lives afresh, but at least in Connecticut’s Christmas of 1921, they made a valiant effort.

Back then, organizations focused on those in need during Christmas, just like today. In downtown Hartford, the Salvation Army hosted 500 kids that year in a large hall where they all sang Christmas carols and folk songs at the top of their lungs. Some had to wait outside in the cold just to feel a part of the thrilling venue. By the end of such parties, Santa managed to greet every child and present them with nuts, candy and those delightful oranges. Funded by charities, these heart-warming events made a great difference for many in our state. Farmers, blue-collar workers, and returning service members also could rely on the kindness of those more fortunate who brought them gift baskets stuffed with all kinds of food and simple gifts. In the Hartford Armory that year, Veterans were hosted to Vermont turkey dinners with all the trimmings and invited for second helpings at a large Christmas Day event.

Every social affair in Connecticut’s high society of 1921 was filled with the spirit of the Christmas. Glee Clubs at colleges performed well-attended programs themed to the season. People were enthused about afternoon holiday teas, upcoming evening parties, and the latest couture. The Flapper Era was just beginning, as freshly emboldened women had just begun to exercise their right to vote. Wealthy families from old money and the nouveau riche in thriving businesses planned their Christmas dinner visits with friends. Oddly, these social engagements were proudly announced in the 1921 Hartford Courant. Large insurance companies published declarations that they would gift life insurance policies to their employees for Christmas. Newspapers were the social media of yesteryear with anything, and everything posted, published, and celebrated. The spirit was bright that December, even as people escaping tragedy from war and illness were processing their loss. Churches filled up with loyal followers, searching for post war comfort as well as inspiration. Ministers, famous for their oratorical skills, knew just how captivate their parishioners with sermons that were sometimes published. Around that time, Hartford’s First Church of Christ’s Minister Rockwell Harmon Potter reminded his parishioners to keep in mind:  “Christmas comes not to stir man’s wonder, but to enkindle his thought…not to dazzle the eyes, but to warm the heart. Worthy are the ceremonies and worthy is the meaning of it all to gather out of it the truth which may be borne away and kept in the heart for ministry to life.”

Christmas Present

As far as present day Christmases go, Connecticut epitomizes much of how the rest of the country visualizes the holiday season–Colonial style homes lit from within, farmhouses swathed in powdery snow, red berries dusted with a fresh snowfall, holly wreathes on the door, and deer loping through the evergreen forests blanketed in white glitter. The truth is that driving down many of our streets in December, one is bound to behold scenery that looks just like a Hallmark card. Aren’t we lucky? And yet, it takes some effort on the part of our populace to get well into the Christmas groove for which we are so highly thought of.

Those of you who live in Connecticut know the holiday drill. It all actually begins with Thanksgiving Day. First, family and friends gather for a turkey dinner and eat their hearts out. While nursing those Alka-Seltzer laden stomachs, our populace strips off the corn stalks from the lamp posts, stuffs the faded mums into the trash barrel, and tosses away the last of the pumpkins in lieu of something even more compelling–the ubiquitous effort aimed at Christmas curb appeal. Here, that includes tastefully placed simple electric candles in the windows and painstakingly hung red beribboned wreathes on doors and windows. Connecticutians are passionate about winter holiday aesthetic—lights and wreathes must be in their proper places to create decorative symmetry. The New England tradition of candles in the windows can be traced back to Irish immigrants. They lit up their streets with window candles for their priest walking home in the dark after his last mass on Christmas Eve. The candles also represent love and faith shining out to neighbors in the spirit of the season.

Procuring a Christmas tree is also a major preoccupation. During the long Thanksgiving weekend, some begin to speculate if they should saw down a tree from a local Christmas tree farm. Others dash to the Christmas tree lot to browse through the pines trucked in from the northwest. No matter where you go, soon the choicest selection will surely be gone. At the same time, much like everywhere else in the country, droves are heading to Home Depot and Michael’s to replace old lights so they can begin the process of emblazoning their houses. Some can’t resist fabric blow up Santas, snowmen and reindeer for the lawn. Black Friday beckons those who have kids, inveigling them to face the long lines at Wal-Mart and Best Buy in search of the perfect gifts. Others go straight into denial about Christmas shopping and in Zen-like fashion, content themselves with leftovers, football on TV, and board games at home with the family members who aren’t out shopping.

Joys of the Season

Although COVID put a damper on many personal gatherings last year, it seems plans are being made for in person events in December of 2021. The Essex Steam Train annually converts into “The North Pole Express,” treating pajama clad kids and their parents to a magical journey. Each coach becomes a stage for a live musical performance of “The Night Before Christmas,” with costumed actors portraying elves. As the pièce de résistance, Santa presents each child with a sleigh bell crafted by the legendary Bevin Bell Factory; a six-generation family run business dating back to the 1832 out of East Hampton, CT.

Mystic Seaport Village welcomes visitors for evening historical walks with lantern bearing hosts who guide small groups past historical ships throughout the decorated village. In Historical Wethersfield, the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum showcases traditional homes decorated for the holidays in various times periods that includes colonial and well as early 20th century displays.  Christmas shops specializing in ornaments and unique décor like The Christmas Barn at the historical Lambert House in Wilton and the Pink Sleigh in Madison are never busier. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford boasts scads of gorgeous Christmas trees and wreaths celebrating the holidays decorated by community members, artists, and organizations. All items are for sale and help support the museum’s special exhibitions, educational programs, and operating expenses. Although this year Hartford Stage will take a hiatus from its staple: A Christmas Carol, instead they will be presenting It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play–a 1940’s story, with special references to Hartford Stage and Hartford history. Churches are busy with Christmas craft markets and bake sales, not to mention full houses during services where, caroling, hymns and music retell the Christmas story. Capping off the holiday season, The Annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church plans to return in early 2022 with music, costumed pageantry, and live animals. Like so many beautiful, active churches in our state, Asylum features classical music and bold performances throughout the season due to the leadership of legendary music director Jack Pott.

Christmas in Connecticut had always been a time for reflection and good will, not having changed all that much in the last 100 years. In smaller towns during Christmas one century ago, the wealthy would bring food, supplies, and gifts to local town folk. Now, Toys for Tots and Stuff a Cruiser drives are magnets all over the state for those who feel that same need to give. Their aim is to create Christmas magic for children no matter what their circumstance. Some people sign up to bell-ring for the Salvation Army collection while other volunteer groups charge into action. Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and Aging and Disability Commissions arrange holiday parties for adults and kids with special needs. Bud Beach, an ordained minister and author (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ole St. Nick) often portrays a magical Santa Claus for some of these Connecticut venues. He whole-heartedly represents a Santa who speaks with extreme sensitivity and kindness to those kids and their families that have very difficult challenges. Bud is an unsung hometown hero who is gifted with the ability to connect deeply with young people and even infants. Those that attend “Sensory Santa” for kids and adults with special needs find moments of joy in time spent with him. Bud reminds his fellow Connecticutians: “It is not just at Christmas time that we need to think about loving our neighbors, it really should be every day of our lives. We need to share our hearts with others and give them our blessings.”

Christmas was once ILLEGAL in Connecticut

In light of all that zest for the holidays both then and now, you may blink and ask yourself, how could it be that Christmas was once against the law here? Let’s face it; many people in Connecticut have become a kind of gleeful cheering squad for the holiday. Yet the early Puritans frowned heavily upon Christmas both here and in Massachusetts, viewing it as a marriage between paganism and Catholicism. Their objective was to stamp it out completely. In the mid-1600s, Christmas was made illegal in Connecticut and subject to large fines if caught celebrating.

How did Christmas get reinstated here? Certain seminal literary events turned the tide in favor of New Englanders becoming great aficionados of a decorative Christmas featuring Santa as a new key personage.

A Biblical scholar from New York, Clement Clarke Moore, had no idea when he sat down to pen a Christmas poem for his children that his view of the holiday would spread across New England to light up the Santa craze once and for all. What would ultimately be known as: “Twas the Night Before Christmas” describes Moore’s vision of a snowy Christmas Eve visit from St. Nicholas. When you think about it, his description seems just exactly like how it might have looked at a modest Connecticut farmhouse on the snow laden fields at full moon. A guest at the party where Moore first read the work out loud to his kids felt so inspired that she published his poem anonymously an 1823 Troy newspaper. His words spread like wildfire, the public was galvanized and soon notions shifted. Charmed, the American populace traded in the more dour representations of St. Nicholas of antiquated times in lieu of a jolly, rotund, rosy-cheeked, white bearded elfin-like fellow that occupies our imagination to this day.

As if to clinch the deal, Charles Dickens later went on tour in the 1860s to read “A Christmas Carol” in places like Boston and Hartford, and it is said that even Dickens himself was reportedly swiping tears from his eyes during the more poignant moments of his oratory. Dickens’ dramatic readings contributed to the New Englanders associating Christmas with Old England style themes of good will, traditions, family gatherings, festive meals, caroling, and charity. Finishing up the job, illustrators like Normal Rockwell painted many engaging depictions of Santa that made it onto the covers of popular magazines in the 1920s, like the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s works informed our modern day notions of Santa Claus in countless ways. His marvelous paintings are all on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

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