Toward the end of the nineteenth century one finds a mix of the spiritual and the temporal in Christmas celebration among the Shakers. Traditionally, from the earliest days in their settlement at Niskayuna, the Shakers devoted Christmas day to spiritual matters, setting aside any unnecessary temporal duties. In preparation for Christmas day, usually during the days of Advent, the Shaker ministry designated a day of confession and reconciliation. This day of “yearly sacrifice” and fasting was meant to put aside all hard feelings one to another so the family could move ahead unencumbered into the new year. Sister Cornelia French recorded in 1897 in a Church Family journal, “The Ministry inform the family at the breakfast table that the day will be improved in the yearly sacrifice gift. The Ministry expressed their feelings in regard to an increase of peace and Union in the family with an exhortation to all to unite with them and banish all discord and hardness of heart one toward another forever from our home.” The yearly sacrifice is one of the most enduring observances in Shaker life.
At the same time, some secular elements of the Christmas season crept into Shaker families. In 1898 at Mount Lebanon’s Second Family the sisters wrote a poem titled, “The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry.” The poem is hand written on narrow pieces of paper less than an inch and a half wide and eight and a half inches long. These pieces are glued together to make a twelve-foot-long strip. This and another similar poem were discovered in what appears to have been a cash box. It has a crank on its side that rotates a shaft around which a narrow strip of paper was wound. When the crank was turned a strip of paper emerged from the end of the box and a bell inside rang.
When a sale was made, money was dropped into a hole in the top of the box and the crank turned to produce a slip of paper and ring the bell. The slip could have been used as either a receipt or, more likely, a slip on which the amount and description of the sale was written and deposited with the money in the box. The Second Family sisters modified the box so that as the crank was turned a verse of the poem emerged from the end of the box and the bell rang. This was repeated until the end of the poem. The drama of it all must have been terribly exciting.
The poem begins:
- “You want a Christmas story. Well I can give you one,
Of what happened to the Shakers in good Mt Lebanon:
On Christmas eve and Christmas day in Eighteen Ninety-eight
You all will know the story’s true which I will now relate.
- ‘Twas the night before Christmas, ‘twas evening, you see.
The door opened quick while we sat at our tea:
Sweet Shaker sisters came in numbering four,
Singing bright Christmas carols standing close by the door….
The poem continues to describe Christmas day in the family – the singing, the meetings, addresses, more singing, and the “Great Christmas tree with presents well laden, for each sister, each brother, each dear little maiden.” Of course the food and the presents are described and the appearance of none other than Scrooge who was quickly dismissed by all with much “bah humbuggery.” It is interesting that Santa Claus does not appear in the poem but apparently the many presents left behind showed that he had made his visit.
The poem ends in good Shaker fashion at the sixteenth verse:
“To the giver of good, the father in Heaven,
The thanks of this family is fervently given:
For the most watchful care from the power above,
Our hearts should forever give the purest of love.”