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A Joyous Shaker Christmas

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - December 6, 2010

“It was felt that all negative emotions must be banished from the heart before the Christmas Spirit could fully take residence.”

— Eldress Gertrude, Canterbury Shaker Village

Lest one think of the Shakers as a somber religious group that looked down upon practices such as Christmas, think again. The Shakers loved Christmas and saw it as a chance to give of themselves to their fellow Shaker brothers and sisters and the world at large.

Making merry, as well as observing the holiday’s religious meaning was important to the Shakers down through history. The holiday was seen as a time to search souls for flaws and to ask for forgiveness. It was also a time to cook, to make and give gifts and to celebrate the season much like the rest of the world.

Having fun was a part of Shaker life that balanced the long hours of work. Picnics, sleigh rides, game nights, musical entertainments and special dinners were regular forms of Shaker socializing, so it can be imagined that Christmas only heightened these activities.

Christmas for the Shakers was the merriest season of the year. According to one Shaker sister, it was called the “feast of delights.”

The last remaining Shaker members at Canterbury Shaker Village, Eldress Bertha Lindsay and Eldress Gertrude Soule discussed the holiday before their deaths and spoke of the joy of the Christmas season and holiday customs.

Like the rest of us, the Shakers had Christmas traditions. Tables were loaded with pies, pastries, and other delicious foods. Socializing after church on Christmas Day meant a great deal to the fun-loving Shakers. After services, the members would sit and chat while passing bowls of nuts and popcorn. All children who lived with the Shakers were included in the celebrations, and perhaps these little ones were part of the reason the Shakers loved Christmas so much.

Part of the Christmas festivities, at one time, was drawing names from a bowl; each person would draw a name at random and give a gift to that person. No one was forgotten when it came to giving and receiving gifts! The Shakers also gave gifts to their leaders and close personal friends. Gifts were often handmade and practical.

Although they lived somewhat apart from the outside world, the Shakers believed in being aware of what was going on elsewhere. They embraced modern gadgets and such inventions as automobiles. By the 1920s, Christmas trees were seen in most homes, often decorated with lights and ornaments. Always creative yet thrifty, the Shakers made ornaments and strung popcorn and cranberries for their holiday trees.

Some of the remaining sisters at Shaker Village would arrange apples in a star around the base of the Christmas tree. The sisters would make food baskets for distribution to needy neighbors; food baskets also were prepared by the sisters for the needy at Thanksgiving.

One aged Shaker sister, Lillian Phelps, shared memories of Shaker Christmas celebrations from long ago. As a young woman in the late 19th century, Phelps enjoyed the holiday season. She related that before sunrise on Christmas morning, the younger people of the Canterbury community would assemble by the west door of the large dormitory called the Dwelling House. An elderly brother would usher the youngsters to an attic loft. Candles for each Shaker were lit, and then the leader pulled the heavy rope cord that rang a Revere bell in the bell tower. The pealing bell woke the older Shakers, who quickly dressed and were ready to join the singing youngsters as they descended from the loft.

After special prayers, the Shakers enjoyed a Christmas breakfast. Later, all Shakers returned to their rooms where they picked a special possession, wrapped it and placed it in a large barrel in the center hallway. Gifts ranging from warm winter coats to shoes, candles and other items were given into the common barrel. These gifts, along with groceries, were given to less fortunate neighbors.

The gift giving showed the generosity of the Shakers and their concern for those outside their community. They followed the strict rule that the gifts must be cherished possessions; the Shakers held to the idea that a gift was not a gift if it was not wanted or needed by the giver. They believed that Christmas was a day to give back to God by showing tokens of gratitude for His many blessings upon them.

A holiday “timeline” shows how the Shakers celebrated Christmas during the years when the Canterbury community flourished.

In the 19th century, the Canterbury Shakers used natural decorations, and the interiors of the buildings were decorated simply with evergreen boughs, pinecones and fruit.

By the early 20th century, decorations reflected the trends in the outside world, where Christmas trees and ornate decorations were becoming popular. However, natural decorations were still popular among the Shakers, and such things as apple pyramids and red and green bows intertwined with clusters of evergreens festooned the Shaker buildings.

A live tree was decorated outside for the birds to enjoy. The lucky birds had a bountiful Christmas tree. Pinecones filled with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed, dried corn on the cob and popcorn were placed on the boughs.

The Trustees building, on the Shaker property, was the place for a traditional evergreen tree decorated by the Shakers for the “world’s people” to enjoy. Packages were placed beneath the tree to be distributed to the needy.

The last of the Canterbury Shakers have passed away. The legacy they left behind was one of a deeply religious people who led lives dedicated to helping others. This was reflected in their generosity to the “world’s people” at the holiday season.

Those who might have thought the Shakers, due to religious beliefs, would shun celebrating the Christmas season would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the Canterbury sisters and brothers loved to have fun. Singing, baking, gift giving, tree decorating and doing everything possible to make the holidays merry for children were part and parcel of the Shaker lifestyle. The Christmas spirit truly lived in the Shakers, and remains in the memories of those who were touched by the love of these gentle people. 

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