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Memories of Christmas past

WINSTED — While putting the finishing touches on the last of the captions for a forthcoming book, “Images of America: Winsted and Winchester,” Verna Gilson and I took a second look at a photograph, from DeMars Images, of the D.S. Watson variety store located at 587 Main across from High Street from 1897 to 1904. Originally we thought the story was about the sizeable female staff posed outside, whose names, unfortunately, we were unable to discover. I wondered just what type of merchandise required an all-female staff and decided to take a closer look at the store windows. Upon enlarging and magnifying the photograph, I found that the windows of the store displayed Christmas merchandise for children, which might explain the hiring of female staff to market items of the day.The shelves were laden with beautifully illustrated games from the firm of Clark and Sowdon, a New York firm established in 1892 that at one time produced 40 board and card games.ChessIndia drew my attention first since I guessed, correctly, that it is the familiar game of Pachisi. Other games displayed by this precursor of Milton-Bradley included ones based on popular nursery rhymes and stories such as Puss’n’ Boots, Sleeping Beauty and Jack and Jill. Card games like Lotto were featured, as were painting books (crayons were not developed until 1903), doll furniture, tea sets, mechanical toys and instruments, mostly of the percussion type. Baseballs dotted the display shelves and a game featuring Santa Claus helped identify the season, as did the garland in the top display on the left, artistically wrapped around Christmas cards. Nowhere did I see that Christmas was overtly advertised, which is not surprising in a New England that had finally shed most, but not, all of its Puritan inclinations, but consumerism had certainly latched itself onto this new holiday.New holiday?Surprisingly, Christmas had only been a federally recognized holiday for less than 30 years. The Christmas traditions we now seek to recreate in the 21st century, in reality, have a very short history in America. In the 17th century, the first Puritans, according to online sources, made it illegal to mention St. Nicolas’ name, exchange gifts or sing Christmas carols. In Massachusetts, there was a five shilling fine for breaking that particular law. Southern colonies did not have such prohibitions, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that Christmas was an important social, though not necessarily religious, event.Actually, the Christmas celebration that evolved in the North and South was based not on religious traditions, but on the pagan Saturnalia, with feasting and carousing. One such carnival in New York City in 1828 led to such a violent riot that a professional police force was formed and just two years earlier, whiskey smuggled into West Point led to the Eggnog Riot which involved one-third of the cadets, 19 of whom were court-marshaled.The secular tradition that we celebrate is credited to Washington Irving who published “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” in 1809. The eventual “taming” of Christmas involved transforming St. Nicolas into a gift-giver who made deliveries via the chimney. Poems, stories and gift shopping began to appear sporadically at different times in different regions, though the North, outside of New York, was slow to adopt Christmas as a holiday.Thomas Nast, illustrator for Harper’s magazine, designed the Christmas cover with his rendition of Santa Claus starting in 1863, an annual event that spanned several decades. In 1870, Christmas took its place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as a national holiday.Victorian America, with its emphasis on the family and home, met the invented “tradition” of Santa Claus with open arms and open pocketbooks. Elaborate Christmas cards were first designed and sold in the United States in 1875, and Victorians embarked wholeheartedly on the large, family-oriented Christmas that we celebrate today, complete with Christmas trees, carols, feasts and gifts.The beautiful sentiment expressed in the editorial in the New York Sun that answered Virginia O’Hanlon’s query about the existence of Santa Claus — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — appeared in 1897, the same year as Daniel Watson opened his store in Winsted. D.S. Watson, a store that did, indeed, as Virginia was promised, “make glad the heart of childhood.”Viginia Shultz-Charette is a local historian and president of Friends of the Beardsley and Memorial Library.

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