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Celebrating Christmas Through The Years

Celebrating Christmas Through The Years

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Maybe you ended the night with a creamy glass of eggnog by the fire, as your favorite Christmas songs played in the background?

We all have our holiday traditions. For some, it’s laid back. For others, it involves days in and out of the car, traveling from one festivity to another. But we do it because it is a part of our routine and one few of us would care to change.

So it is often with communities. Beginning in December, towns across America begin to hold traditional events, inviting residents out for a little holiday fellowship with their neighbors.

Some are fairly common, no matter what town or city you may find yourself in. There’s scarcely a municipality in the country that doesn’t hold some sort of tree lighting celebration early on in the month, and almost all Christian places of worship will schedule a Christmas-themed festival or fair, often with the intent to raise money for a good cause or to help local families in need.

Cheshire has plenty of celebrations at this time of year. The first weekend in December brought the tree lighting, complete with a visit from Santa Claus. There was a festival at Elim Park, concerts by the Cheshire Symphony Orchestra, Cheshire High School, and Cheshire Community Chorus, as well as the Festival of Carols at First Congregational Church.

Add in all the personal Christmas displays one sees while traveling around town — white lights outlining beautiful homes, intricate stories being told with outdoor decorations, huge inflatable snowmen or reindeer to bring out the child in all of us — and it would have been hard to miss out on the Christmas spirit this year.

But traditions change over time. How the community celebrated in 2019 is different than how residents of Cheshire marked the holidays 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

For instance, while caroling is a part of the tree lighting ceremony to this day, in 1959 and the 40 years prior, the Cheshire Women’s Club scheduled their singing for the Sunday afternoon before Christmas, as the front page photo in the Dec. 24, 1959 edition of The Cheshire Herald explained:

The Cheshire Women’s Club this year as for the past 41 years sponsored caroling on the Green, a ceremony which has become the heart of Cheshire’s Christmas celebration. Sunday afternoon carolers gathered around the community tree and were led in singing by Miss Barbara Dean, director of music at the elementary schools. 

The tree, planted by the Women’s Club several years ago, was festive with gay decorations made by the Girl Scouts and hung by the Boy Scouts. First Selectman Fred Bens had put up the pole for the lights, Alex Bernartz attended to the lighting and Nelson Nichols arranged for the loud speakers.

And it wasn’t just the Women’s Club that got in on the act. The Kiwanis Club constructed a large Nativity scene that was erected on the green while local businesses filled their store fronts with decorations. The Waterbury National Bank seems to have drawn particular attention in 1959, as they decided to celebrate their own one-year anniversary with a large birthday cake decoration, along with Christmas trees and ornaments.

It was also announced that music lovers would have a special Christmas treat that year — the Cheshire Theater planned performances of the Broadway musical “South Pacific,” with the first showtime scheduled for Christmas Day and lasting a full week afterwards.

Fast-forward 10 years, and The Herald was noticing that several Christmas pageants and plays were set for the week preceding the holiday. In honor of all the busy young thespians readying for their big performances, The Herald published a little history of Christmas pageants in the Dec. 18, 1969 edition of the paper:

Where did church drama actually begin? One possible source is the tradition of the Christmas crib or manger scene, but scholarly research indicates that medieval religious drama probably had other, separate origins, according to the editors of Encyclopedia Americana…

Mystery cycles of the 16th century included as many as 40 dramas, which might be presented over a period of several days. The cycles developed in virtually every European country. Typical plays dealt with such subjects as “The Creation of the World and the Fall of Angels.”

St. Peter’s Church seemed particularly festive in 1969, as they planned their own play for Christmas — “The Nativity According to St. Luke” — where the young choir and performers were to be buoyed by 13 “professional instrumentalists.” The church also scheduled something called “Christmas for Others,” where members of the congregation arrived for “a day of work and fun, making, wrapping and purchasing gifts and food for hospital patients, the elderly, and the shut-ins and others.”

At the high school, a “holiday punch party” was organized, with juniors, seniors, and school alumni invited to “renew acquaintances with the faculty and former classmates home for the holidays.”

And what Christmas season would be complete without visit from Santa Claus, who it was announced would take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to meet with children at the Cheshire Fire Department, which was hosting a complete “Christmas Village” inside the facility.

Santa’s appearance seems to have been a success, as The Herald reported in the Dec. 24, 1969 edition of the paper:

Arriving aboard the Cheshire Fire Department engine, Santa Claus (was) greeted Friday by a large number of children and parents. Park and Recreation Department Director Richard Bartlem said an hour’s waiting time resulted that day for interviews, but on Saturday and Sunday a steady stream of visitors kept Santa busy.

By 1979, the world had changed.

Cheshire was still celebrating the holidays, including with the tree lighting and church functions, and the town was excited to learn that the adult choir from First Congregational Church had been asked to perform live on WQQW (1600 AM) on Dec. 23 — delivering “a special Christmas show featuring a selection of carols and anthems,” according to an article in the Dec. 20, 1979 edition of the paper — but it was a far more somber event that was occupying people’s minds.

In early November of that year, more than 50 American hostages were taken by Iranian students, who took over the American Embassy in that country. Their fate wouldn’t be known for more than a year, but in Cheshire, one young student decided to address the issue directly by sending a letter to the hostages:

I am writing from Cheshire, Conn. I hope the students treat you fairly. A word of hope! It took a long time for Moses to get out of Egypt but at some time you’re always freed. I’m wishing you good luck, a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, peace and good will.

The student who wrote the letter was Kevin Wetmore, all of 10 years old at the time, and he concluded it by reciting from the Gospel of Luke, recounting the birth of Jesus. 

Traditions change over the years. Some maintain, others become outdated, still more adapt to the times. But no matter how Cheshire celebrated the holidays in the past, the community always did so with a sense of joy and lightheartedness. 

May that be a tradition that never gets old.

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