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Nineteenth Century New England Christmas

Old Sturbridge Village Celebrates Christmas by Candlelight

Take a step back in time to when Christmas was simpler at Old Sturbridge Village. Currently in its fourteenth year, OSV’s Christmas by Candlelight celebrates beloved New England holiday traditions against the backdrop of one of the region’s preeminent living history museums.

Old Sturbridge Village, located in Sturbridge, MA, depicts a rural New England town in the 1830s. The museum preserves over forty historic buildings and offers visitors the opportunity to interact with authentically-costumed historians and witness demonstrations of traditional crafts. During the holidays, however, OSV expands this focus to fully explore the origins of New England’s Christmas celebrations. “Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the early nineteenth century,” explains Director of Interpretation, Rhys Simmons. “There was still a strong Puritanical way of life in New England at that time. Christmas was considered a time for drinking and carousing, so it wasn’t something that people usually celebrated.”

Christmas has evolved dramatically since New England’s Puritan days and Old Sturbridge Village goes all out to connect modern-day visitors with the origins of their favorite Christmas traditions. “The Christmas season brings a lot of energy that the rest of the year doesn’t always have,” says Simmons. “People get really excited to work the Christmas season. The man who plays Santa Claus, he does it every year.”

Visitors share OSV’s enthusiasm for the holiday season. “Christmas by Candlelight is part of people’s family traditions, and there’s a level of expectation there,” Simmons explains. “We always get comments when a part of the program gets taken away. We’re always fine-tuning—for example, we added the tree lighting and saw a bump in attendance—but the core has remained the same since the beginning. People feel strongly about it.”

Activities range from strolling carolers and rides in a horse-drawn carriage to an annual gingerbread house contest and a roaring bonfire, all of which infuse OSV’s educational aims with holiday fun. “There are decorations everywhere,” Simmons says. “Visitors have an experience.” In each historic house, costumed historians offer peaks into different Christmas traditions, like music or a traditional holiday drink called wassail.

“The hand-crafted nativity scene is definitely one of the biggest draws,” says Simmons. “It has over five hundred pieces. It’s intricate and beautiful, it has lights and motion—people are fascinated by it. They really get into it.”

Christmas by Candlelight is an integral part of Old Sturbridge Village’s broader interpretational program. “It’s all about traditions. People like to know where things come from,” Simmons says. “We use the village as a set—it has a magical way of immersing people fully, engaging them in whatever we’re doing.” Year-round, Old Sturbridge Village offers visitors the chance for hands-on learning, whether that is playing traditional games, exploring historic buildings, or asking questions of OSV’s historians and artisans.

“Truly skilled people work here,” says Simmons. “One of our greatest challenges is retaining knowledge of traditional crafts. The people bring a lot of skills. Our lead blacksmith, for example, has worked here since 1972, so he has a vast amount of accumulated experience. One-on-one mentoring is one of the best ways to do this, but as you can probably imagine, this is harder do to in some areas. It’s hard to find a cooper these days.”

Old Sturbridge Village offers a rare glimpse of New England’s history from a perspective left out of most history books. For Simmons, that is one of the most rewarding things about working at OSV.

“I want visitors to learn just how resilient people are,” says Simmons. “Visitors expect to see that life was hard—and it was—but they also learn about the similarities between how people lived in the past and today. When they interact with our historians and artisans, they see parallels to their own lives. People were able to do so much.”

- By Ettractions Digital Content Editor, EMILY JARMOLOWICZ

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Massachusetts: Boston

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