Sycamore Shoals celebrates Old Christmas

Published 9:12 am Tuesday, January 6, 2015

NW0106 Old Christmas F 4x5C

The New Year may have come and gone, but the Christmas celebration continued this past weekend at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.
The park hosted its annual Old Christmas at Fort Watauga, which focused on sharing the Christmas traditions the early settlers in the region would have observed. Each cabin inside Fort Watauga focused on a different cultural background, including Scottish, French, Dutch, German and English Christmas traditions.
In Colonial times, Christmas would be a 12-day celebration starting Dec. 25 and ending Jan. 6, known as Twelfth Night. The Old Christmas celebration was set to align with that tradition.
The Old Christmas celebration proved to be a hit with visitors.
Renee Hickman traveled from Gray to take part in the event with her family. She described the celebration as “super fun and educational.” She especially liked seeing how different cultures incorporated similar activities into their holidays, she said.
“I especially liked how the yule log went through the different cultures,” she said. “There is a lot of hope in that, to pick a log to burn all through the night. I think the same could apply now. There are just as many dark nights, and we still need the warmth and hope.”
Justin and Lydia Kitts with their infant son, Weston, stopped at Sycamore Shoals on their way back to Barbourville, Ky. Lydia said she always has had an interest in history and costumes and decided to stop to check out the reenactment.
“It is really great,” she said. “I love how accurate everything is.”
Jane and Bill Tingle of Elizabethton try to make the Old Christmas a part of their holiday traditions as much as possible.
“It really is one of our favorite things,” Bill Tingle said. “We love the reenactors. They are not just going through the motions. You can tell they do enjoy it and they love it. Their heart is in it.”
Jane Tingle said she enjoyed taking in all the decorations the reenactors use in their cabins.
“It is amazing how much they can do in such a small space,” she said. “When it seems like colored plastic is taking over the world, it is refreshing to see other materials being used.”
Reenactors Samuel Fleenor and Thomas Fleenor shared information about Scottish Christmas traditions in the Tavern. Scottish settlers would keep candles in the window as part of their Christmas decorations. Samuel Fleenor said this helped to draw the wandering strangers into a place of warmth and comfort.
The yule log was another tradition, for both Scottish settlers and people from other cultures. The yule log would be cut on Christmas eve. Fleenor said the children of the house would drag the log around the home seven times with the youngest child riding on the log.
“The log would then be placed in the fireplace, and if it burned all night it was good luck for the family,” he said. “They would save coals from the fire and use them the next year to keep the good luck going.”
In the Talbot house, visitors learned about British Christmas traditions. Reenactor Chenoa Patton explained celebrating Christmas was illegal for British families until around 1700 thanks to a ban put in place by Oliver Cromwell in England in 1644.
“Cromwell decreed that any Christmas celebration would be illegal,” Patton said. “Any one caught celebrating would be fined, and anything given, such as toys to children, would be taken away.”
Even though the British colonists were in a new country, they still had to live by their home country’s rules. Patton said settlers started to celebrate again in the colonies after witnessing the Christmas traditions of other colonists, and then the ruling was retracted after Cromwell’s death.
Once the celebrations resumed, she said a British Christmas would have been different than what is celebrated today.
“It would not have been the normal Christmas you think of,” Patton said. “They didn’t exchange gifts. Instead, they would put out food and drink for their neighbors and family to enjoy. It would have been a long celebration.”
Another British tradition was the firing of the Christmas guns, something reenactor Rachel Bennett compared to modern-day fireworks.
“It was a way to welcome in the new year,” Bennett said. “In big cities, where there were militias, they would ration the powder through the year to make sure there was enough for the Christmas guns.”
Legend had it that the firing of the guns would scare away malicious spirits from the holiday celebrations, Patton said.
Reenactor Tony DeVault said French Colonial Christmas celebrations would center around a Christmas feast. The homes would be decorated with a nativity scene highlighted with greenery, red ribbons and fruit, such as apples.
French families also would put candles in the window to guide and welcome visitors, and children would put their shoes by the fireplace so that Père Noël, the French version of Santa Claus, could fill their shoes with treats.
Children also would take handfuls of hay or straw and would visit the neighbors searching for the three wise men. The hay or straw would be necessary to feed to the Magi’s camels if they were found.
“The French Christmas was about home and family, and celebrating the Christ child,” DeVault said.
Dutch children would carry out a similar tradition. Instead of placing their shoes at the fireplace, reenactor Ethan Walling said the children would line their shoes up outside their home so Sinterklass, the Dutch Santa, could place items in them as he passed.
Sinterklass recognized that not all families could place their shoes safely outside, so he had a helper named Black Peter who would visit those families.
“Black Peter would come down the chimney to leave items for the families who couldn’t set their shoes out,” Walling said. “On the way down, he would get covered in soot, which gave him the name Black Peter.”
Other parts of a Dutch celebration would include sounding horns to scare way evil spirits to keep Sinterklass safe on his journey and having a bonfire of all the greenery used in decorations on the last day of Christmas.
German Christmas celebrations were the first to introduce the Christmas tree. Reenactor Ramona Invidiato said the Germans were the first to bring greenery into the Christmas decorations, which led to the use of the Christmas tree.
“The Christmas tree signified everlasting life, because the greenery could still be found in winter,” she said.
German families, like many others, would have attended church services and would have included manger scenes in the decorations. The German Christmas also included a large Christmas feast with sweet desserts, such as Silent Night Bread and Three Kings Cake.

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