“You want a Christmas story. Well I can give you one, Of what happened to the Shakers in good Mt Lebanon”

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. 

The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,

“The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,” (title page), Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1898, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12819.1.

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.

Box, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850

Box, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.769.1.

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 Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry

“The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,” (first verse), Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1898, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12819.1.

The poem begins: 

  1. “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. 

  1. ‘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.” 

 

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“Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon,… March 12th 1848.”

 

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Partial View to North Family – Looking North-West, ca. 1880. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4014.1

This anonymously written poem notes and described the 36 members of the North Family at the beginning of 1848. Where some members are noted only by their first names their surnames have been supplied in brackets. The document is useful in its description of the employments of many of the family’s members. That information coupled with other manuscripts from the family for that year gives us a rich view of life in the family.

Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon, in which all the members of said family are briefly noticed who were residing therein March 12th 1848.

In describing the members of this family,

We’ll labor to exercise some charity.

And if by and by we should chance to espy,

Some very small mote in a brother’s eye,

We’ll seek to remove it as we have been shown,

By taking out firstly the beam from our own.

Impress’d with this maxim we’ll now pass along,

And notice each member in our little song.

 

Here kind Elder Richard [Bushnell] stands first on the list,

And kind Brother Frederick [Evans] stands next to assist,

Now both our kind Elders we love and revere,

And give them our blessing their spirits to cheer.

Our Elders so kind we are bound to obey,

They watch for our souls that we go not astray;

So we will be faithful and labor to bless,

Our kind loving Elders for their faithfulness.

Eldress Sarah [Smith], now stands at the feminine head,

By whose wise example good Sisters are led;

The same bright-example now daily is set,

By our loving sister we call Antoinette [Doolittle].

By both have a burden of labor and care

Their love for lost-souls makes them willing to bear

Our kind Elder Sisters deserve our best love.

They are striving to lead us to heaven above.

Charles Bushnell and Clawson [Middleton] good Deacons have been,

In supporting the gospel which saves us from sin;

In love and good works they do always abound,

And faithful and true they have ever been found.

Armeda [Sherman] and Anna [Crosman] are two faithful souls,

As ever existed between the two poles;

Their labors of love are extended to all,

The sick and the healthy the great and the small.

And now, Thomas Estes we’ll next call to mind

He’s faithful in labor, obliging and kind

John Shaw we’ll remember who makes all our shoes;

And by his example much strength does diffuse,

Now Amy [Bennet] kind Sister must not be forgot,

She’s patient in bearing what falls to her lot;

She’ll long be remember’d beloved and blest

For labors bestow’d on the sick and distress’d

We’ll also remember our good Phebe Ann [Jones],

Who daily is striving to do all she can,

She works at the Palm leaf and makes summer hats,

Likewise pretty fans and some table mats;

In all her employment, she’s cheerful and bright,

And her smiling countenance gives us delight.

Now, Anthony Roberts and George [Wickersham] we will name

They both are mechanicks of much skill and fame.

They are gifted in skill like the workmen of old

Who wrought for the temple wood, silver and gold

And as they in faith and good works do abound,

With pure love and union they both shall be crown’d

Let kind sister Sally [Bushnell] come next if you please,

And Patty [Bushnell] who make our good butter and cheese,

We know they are faithful in all their employ,

They cultivate good but the evil destroy.

Henry Cantrell and Chauncey [Sears] are worthy of praise,

Their labors are useful in various ways;

In the shop, at the mill on the farm with the team,

Their good deeds are flowing in one constant stream;

These brethren so faithful in all their employ.

We give them our blessing and wish them much joy;

And when all their labors are finishe’d and done,

We trust they will reign with the Daughter and Son.

Now Nancy [Lockwood] and Charlotte [Bowns] kind Sisters are they,

Both careful to walk in the strait narrow way;

In deep tribulation they always endure,

And march on their way with the humble and pure.

Of Levi [Shaw] and Daniel [Fraser] we’ll next-take a view,

We know they are faithful, kind, honest and true;

Their faith by their works they’ve both fully shown,

We love them sincerely we freely must own.

Now Phebe [Van Houten] we’ll notice like Dorcas of old,

She’s made many garments which we can behold.

And Catharine [Van Houten] also is true in her place,

While smiles of contentment enliven her face.

These two worthy sisters so loving and kind

Are belov’d by all for their pureness of mind.

Resembling each other as near as two pins,

They bring to the mind two young roes that are twins.

Here’s Andrew [Firkey] and Luther [Dunnels] quite faithful we find,

They’re both honest farmers to labor inclin’d;

The cause of the gospel they wish to promote,

Their time and their talents they freely devote;

These brethren obliging and kind are to all,

And while they are faithful they never will fall.

Jane Knight, loves employment she’s neat as a pin,

She gives wholesome counsel to those who come in;

In her conversation she’s meek and she’s mild,

And in her behavior a true gospel child.

And Harriet Bullard kind sister we love,

The spirit is pure as the innocent dove,

She is faithful in duty in every place,

And virtues bright image is stamp’d on her face.

John Brown is a brother quite clever and kind,

He’s taken some pains in improving his mind.

He’s faithful in duty takes care of the hens

He cultivates good bur the evil condemns

John Robe is a brother quite cheerful and free

In search of Mount Zion he sailed o’er the sea

And since he was faithful and did persevere

We give him our blessing and welcome him here

Now, Sarah Jane Epwell the gospel obeys

And kind Hannah Wilson is worthy of praise

They both do stand faithful and firm for the truth

They’ve given their strength to the Lord in their youth

For such there’s a blessing for greater we know

Than all the vain pleasures this world can bestow.

 

Our young brother Henry [Cantrell] does all that he can

To build up the gospel of good Mother Ann

And Timothy Rayson is striving to be

Attentive to labor obliging and free

We know if they’re giving their strength to the Lord

Now while in their youth they will have their reward

And if they are faithful to keep in the fold

They’ll gain greater riches than mountains of gold

Of Elizaette Sutton and Rhoda [Hollister] we’ll speak

They’re pure in their manners obliging and meek

The world they’ve forsaken with all its vain toys

To find more substantial and heavenly joys

Now, Moses [Clement] we’ll mention who’s set out to break

The ties of old nature for the gospel’s sake

And Solomon Goddard has also begun

The snares of the tempter henceforth for to shun

We love these young brethren we’re free to confess

We give them our blessing that they may progress

________________

This poem was transcribed many years ago from a manuscript in the collection in one of the repositories holding Shaker materials, but the transcriber does not remember which repository. It is shared here both for your reading pleasure and for your help in locating its source. If you can identify the poem, please comment below.