“Cross-Dressing, Misrule and Mayhem: Christmas before Santa in Early America”

Photo of Huguenot Street in winter by Lucia O’Corozine

Most of us are aware by now that a lot of the revelries that we associate with Christmas actually predate Christianity, reflecting Yule or Midwinter rituals of the Celts and Saxons. In centuries past there were even more of these practices, including some with their roots in the brief inversion of the social order that was allowed by the Roman authorities on the feast of Saturnalia, which marked the overthrow of the god Uranus by his own son.

When Puritanism was first gaining traction at the end of the 16th century, a noted wet blanket named Philip Stubbes wrote a rather exhaustive rant on all the excesses that he perceived in English society, The Anatomie of Abuses. Among the numberless sources of merriment of which he thoroughly disapproved were many popular Christmas traditions of the day. These included a procession to the church on Christmas morning by “an hundred lusty guts” singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and “swinging their handkerchiefs about like madmen,” led by some local yokel designated that year’s “Lord of Misrule.” It sounds like Saturnalia still had its pockets of staunch adherents among the British commons in 1583.

It was about a century later that a group of French Huguenots settled on the banks of the Wallkill in what is now New Paltz, and they apparently hadn’t left all such Pagan practices behind in the Old World either. A glimpse into their Christmas folkways, and those of other settlers of the New World, will be provided by a lecture titled “Cross-Dressing, Misrule and Mayhem: Christmas before Santa in Early America.” It will be presented at Historic Huguenot Street’s Deyo Hall on Broadhead Avenue next Thursday, December 1 at 7 p.m.

According to lecturer Reynolds Scott-Childress, who teaches History at SUNY-New Paltz, Christmas in Colonial America was a very different holiday from what it is now. As in ancient Rome, workers used it as a time to demand appreciation from their social betters. Through wassailing songs they offered their wealthy neighbors a choice: Provide the best wine from their cellars, the whitest bread or sweetest puddings from their pantries and the finest clothes from their closets for bawdy revels, or face the consequences: smashed windows, stolen livestock, burned barns – the original trick-or-treat. Scott-Childress’ presentation will explore how these early Christmas practices evolved in the early 1800s into the celebration of Christmas as we know it now: a private celebration in which children run riot with gifts and adults provide for those less fortunate.

Also on Historic Huguenot Street’s agenda for the holiday season are two opportunities for families to have their photographic portraits taken with Santa, who will be clothed in a vintage costume and paired with the lovely backdrop of the holiday hearth in the DuBois Fort. The sessions with photographer Leyla Cadabal will be offered on two Saturdays: December 3 and 10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and cookies and cider will be served. The DuBois Fort Visitor Center is located at 81 Huguenot Street.

For more information about both of these events, please visit www.huguenotstreet.org or call (845) 255-1660 or 255-1889.

@ Frances Marion Platt

 

Kingston tree-lighting this Friday

Time to light up these darkened winter days. We gave our thanks, filled the fridge with plenty of leftovers that we’ll pile into all manner of strange sandwich combinations. How about heralding the coming of the next big holiday speed-racing toward us? We’re talking about Santa’s first 2011 arrival into the Ulster County seat.

Put on by the Kingston Professional Firefighters’ Local 461, the annual Kingston Tree-Lighting takes place this Friday, November 25 at from 6-8 p.m. with the arrival of Santa, Mrs. Claus and a host of other kid-delighting friends at Kingston’s Academy Green, located between the city’s Stockade and Midtown Districts – aboard a firetruck, no less.

Entertaining everybody, and hopefully warming the crowds up, will be a deejay playing holiday classics; dancers from the Catskill Ballet; the Kingston High School Brass Ensemble; and members of the Coach House Players leading everyone in the singing of traditional holiday carols.

There’ll be plenty of hot chocolate and JJ’s Rockin’ Cupcakes. In addition, there will be a 50/50 raffle fundraiser, as well as three boys’ and three girls’ bikes to be given away. It all takes place this Friday, November 25 on Academy Green, located between Albany and Clinton Avenues at Maiden Lane in Kingston, starting at 6 and lasting until 8 p.m.

 

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