December 1989

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Christmas Eve

in Cherry Valley


Elizabeth Calder Rock

Mrs. Elizabeth Calder Rock wrote this description of the way Christmas Eve and Christmas were enjoyed in the 1830s at the home of her grandparents, Isaac and Ellen Ratcliffe Keeling, who had come to America from Rochester, Staffordshire, England, in the spring of 1822. They settled in Cherry Valley, New York, and the house here mentioned stood about five miles south of Cherry Valley on the road between Roseboom and Pleasant Brook. Mrs. Rock was born in the village of Cherry Valley, January 15, 1828. She lived to be one hundred years old. She is the great, great-aunt of Bill Treichler.

When supper was over the great kitchen was ready. It was also a living room, one half being carpeted, I think with rag carpet. A heating stove occupied a position half-way up the room. An immense fireplace nearly filled the lower end, near which a door opened into a large pantry with sink and running water, where food was prepared and dishes were washed. Such was a farm kitchen of those days.

The men brought in an immense log and with the aid of crowbars placed it on the irons in the fireplace, and my Grandfather lighted it with a freshly burning piece of the last year's Yulelog. A bunch of evergreens was hung from the ceiling, a substitute for the mistletoe which does not grow in that rigorous climate. There were no railroads then to bring it from the south. Two small round tables were set out, one for the posset, the other for the Yule Cheese and the accompanying round loaf of bread.

The posset was of milk sweetened and spiced, and when brought to the proper degree of heat sufficient wine was added to produce a slight curdling. This was served in a large round dish and a ring dropped into it, the young people sitting around the table, all eating from the one dish, each striving to get the ring which was to assure a happy marriage within the coming year. The bread and cheese were eaten with it, beer and cider served and possibly wine.

The Yule Cheese when cut was white, mottled with green, part of the curd having been colored with the juice of fresh sage leaves and mixed with the white curd when placed in the press, an interesting process which I had previously witnessed as one of my aunts attended to its accomplishment.

When the young people arrived—for this was their exclusive festival—the merrymaking began. Carols were sung, my uncle accompanying with his violin or his flute.

Great were the efforts of the young maidens to escape the "mistletoe bough" and equally great the efforts of the young men to catch them there.

After the feast when the ring had found its proper owner, dancing to violin music began. The merriment went on till midnight, my dear old Grandmother enjoying it all from her rocking chair in the corner, and my Grandfather joining in the sports.

Then the guests departed and the family hustled off to bed—the stockings first being hung up—in order to rise early for the family gathering on Christmas day.

Before noon the married daughters, their husbands and children arrived, unless there had been church service, when the dinner was later. And such a dinner! Roast beef necessarily, on an English table, roast goose and other fowls with suitable accompaniments; plum pudding with brandy sauce, mince pies galore, a small one for every child to carry home, with fancy cakes. A goodly portion of the Yule Cheese with cakes and fruits fell to the mothers for after-Christmas feasting.

My Grandfather kept up this old English custom as long as a sufficient number of his family could be brought together for the purpose.

As I grew older I attended Christmas Eve service in our village church, after very happy times trimming it with branches and sprays of the beautiful hemlock, its evergreen boughs being considered peculiarly appropriate for the occasion. Even the corners were filled with small trees, and the church was a veritable evergreen bower. Rows of lighted candles embellished the windows. If I remember correctly there were oil lamps hanging from the ceiling in great chandeliers, while more candles or an astral lamp lighted the pulpit. This Christmas Eve service was a great treat, instructive in events of the Christ child's birth, especially to the children as they listened to the beautiful old story, made more impressive by the hymns, the lights and greenery.

Such are the memories of the Holy Night celebrations during my childhood seventy-five years ago, now nearly eighty-five.

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