Arts and Culture
Food and Wine
People and Places
Science and Nature
Travel and Lodging
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
Home » HISTORY » MASSACHUSETTS » Christmas by Candlelight
Sleigh Rides at Old Sturbridge Village     BY: Old Sturbridge Inc.
Christmas by Candlelight

Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts

By Phyllis Hanlon | December 15, 2010

A 19th century living museum transports visitors to a time before online shopping, store-bought decorations and artificial trees dominated the Christmas season.

Santa Claus
BY & COPYRIGHT: Old Sturbridge Inc.

As you pass by long lines of eager children waiting to talk to Santa Claus, string colored lights on an evergreen tree and craft an elaborate house made of gingerbread, cinnamon candies and licorice whips, a Central Massachusetts attraction offers you an opportunity to step back in time and discover how these traditions came into existence. Every weekend in December costumed interpreters and historians at Old Sturbridge Village recapture those early days and provide some interesting background on Christmas customs.

Although folks in the 1830s, did not celebrate Christmas as we know it today, the Village has recreated the ambiance of an old-fashioned holiday and focuses on the beginnings of several traditions. Candlelight, strolling carolers in period dress and the tantalizing scent of gingerbread and mulled cider inspires “visions of sugar plums” and envelopes visitors in the joys of the season. Curator Tom Kelleher says, “We give an overall warm and fuzzy feeling. The Village is decorated in a nostalgic, quaint way.”

Speaking of sugarplums, each night an interpreter recites “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and offers insight into the author, Clement Clarke Moore, a professional linguist who wrote the poem to entertain his children. Staff also explain how Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas evolved into our modern-day Santa Claus.

A Yule Log
BY & COPYRIGHT: Old Sturbridge Inc.

Christmas by Candlelight provides histories of the first tree, a German tradition brought to this country by a Harvard professor who fled his homeland, the ubiquitous poinsettia introduced to America from Mexico in the early 1800s and the Yule log. Kelleher reports that in pre-Christian Europe the Druids sought an escape from the short, cold, dreary winter days. “They would get a special log, bless and light it. With the resulting fire, they would encourage the return of the sun god.”

Culinary traditions abound during December and Christmas by Candlelight delves into some cooking customs, including the origin of the dreaded fruitcake that gets passed from one household to another for months on end. According to Kelleher, in the 1700s, this sweet treat was highly prized and symbolized cultural value. “Fruitcake is dense, rich and soaked in rum or brandy. It kept well for any occasion and it was expensive and labor-intensive to make this cake,” he notes. The ingredients had to be hand washed, peeled, chopped, blended and baked. To their surprise, visitors who sample the time-honored recipe find the much-maligned pastry to be delicious, adds Kelleher.

The Annual Gingerbread House Contest
BY & COPYRIGHT: Old Sturbridge Inc.

Gingerbread has also become an integral part of the Christmas season. Visitors to the Village during Christmas by Candlelight can learn the art of gingerbread making and view and vote on entries in the annual Gingerbread House Contest.

What would Christmas be without hot, mulled cider? Interpreters demonstrate how to make this chill-chasing beverage and offer samples.

Kelleher describes the process this way: “A red hot poker is plunged into a pitcher of cider that is sprinkled with whole cloves and other spices. It heats up in seconds and caramelizes the natural fruit sugar, which gives the cider a rich, caramel taste. It’s like a caramel apple in a glass.”

Interpreters also explain other ancient traditions during the course of the evening, such as wassailing – traveling from house-to-house singing carols in return for a bite of good food and a sip of something warm.

Children are invited to make Christmas cards using woodcut designs that represent yesteryear. An assortment of musical presentations featuring Victorian carolers, hand bell choirs, adult and school vocal groups, as well as magician and puppet shows, take place at various locations around the Village, according to Kelleher. Should Mother Nature deliver some snowfall, a horse and wagon stands ready to give sleigh rides around the property.

Visitors Warm by the Bonfire
BY & COPYRIGHT: Old Sturbridge Inc.

For those who wish to recapture the warmth and comfort of holidays gone by, a bonfire is just the ticket.

“Some people like to grab a hot chocolate or cider and sit by the fire. It can be mesmerizing,” Kelleher points out. “One family brought their dinner and sat by the fire eating, almost like having a picnic.”

“We make the event fun and enjoyable, but our mission is education,” says Kelleher, emphasizing the historic and social significance of the experience. “You don’t know where you are until you know where you’ve been.”


1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA 01566,

(800) SEE-1830 / (800) 733-1830

December 17-19, 2010

Tickets cost $14 or $12 for Old Sturbridge Village members.

The Old Sturbridge Village Website

Share |
ONE is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.