Christmas Among the Shakers in the Olden Time

by Elmina Phillips

Miss Elmina Phillips, at my request, placed at my disposal her unpublished MS. entitled, “Christmas Among the Shakers in the Olden Time.”

Probably the English founders of Shakerism in America brought with them the English custom of celebrating Christmas, and introduced it among their American converts. Certainly fifty years ago, when the congregational descendants of the Puritans in New England were going about their usual employments on Christmas as on any other day, their Shaker descendants in northern Ohio were keeping it as the one great holiday of the year.

There was a stir of Christmas preparation in the air two or three weeks beforehand. Individual members had no money to spend for Christmas gifts, since all the purchasing for the community was done by the trustee deacons and deaconesses; but it was understood that it was to be a day of good cheer and that there would be gifts for all.

The eldresses and trustee sisters might be found occasionally in private consultation, likely to result in a trip of the latter to the little town, now grown to be a great city, where such things as they could not raise or manufacture for themselves were obtained. And sometimes a rap at the eldress’s door would bring the family deaconess to the door with an air of Christmas mystery, and through the crack she opened to receive your message might be heard the click of shears, indicating that new goods were being cut.

The kitchen deaconess was busy superintending the picking over of the apples, setting the barrels of choicest ones convenient for Christmas day, inspecting the pickles and preserves, and honey, etc., consulting with the trustees and the cook and baker, which consultations were likely to result in cakes and puddings and chicken and other pies, etc., in due season.

You are thinking, perhaps, as is probably true, that the New England housewives must have brought recollections of Thanksgiving to Ohio, where Thanksgiving day had not yet been introduced. But this was only one phase of the preparation—chiefly the day was kept as holy day. Much of the worship of the Shakers consisted of singing, and they made their own hymns and tunes; and Christmas would hardly have been Christmas if a company of the, young people had not gone around in the early morning singing a Christmas song to awaken the family. So the favorite hymnist was quietly reminded, now by one young singer, then another, that a new song for Christmas morning would be wanted. And the company of singers must be chosen, and copies of the new song privately written and distributed to each one, with the music for those that could read it; for opportunities must be caught to practice it on the quiet, since it would not be Christmas like if there were no mystery about it, There were many musical young people among them at that time, and I have known one hymnist to be applied to for a new song for two separate companies of singers, neither company knowing of the other till they met on their rounds in the morning.

And, as the day drew near, the elders did not fail to counsel the People in meeting that if there were any differences among them they should be reconciled, that there might be nothing to mar the Christmas good-will.

On Christmas eve, at half-past seven, at the sound of the bell, all retired to their rooms, and one read aloud and the others listened to the story from John XIII of the washing of the disciples’ feet. Then each two washed each other’s feet, “and when they had sung a hymn they went out, if they chose, to make any final preparations for the morrow.

This was the time usually chosen by the Christmas singing band for the final, and probably the only full rehearsal of their morning song; and, as if casually, by twos and threes, they took their way to some shop sufficiently remote from the dwelling house that their voices would not be heard there, and in which the brother in charge of the building had agreed to have a good fire, and to let the members of the company in’ by signal. When they were satisfied that all knew the song, some young brother volunteered to waken all the company in due time in the morning and they separated for the night. At nine o’clock all was dark and silent in the village.

Next morning as early as half-past four the singers met, perhaps in the kitchen, and partook of some light refreshment, set ready the night before just to put them in voice, and then started out to sing, first in the halls of the principal dwelling, then at every house in the little village, in which several people lived.

By the time they had gone all around the family, if there was sleighing, a span of horses and sleigh was likely to stand convenient, and the company merrily started off to sing their song at one of the other families a mile away. If they met a sleighload from the other family coming to sing to them, as they sometimes did, they hailed each other and kept on their way, sure of a warm welcome, though not of surprising and waking the friends where they were going.

And after breakfast, as all rose from the table and kneeled for a moment in silent thanksgiving together, the new song was probably sung again in the dining-room, the kitchen sisters coming in to listen to or join in the singing.

At 9 A. M. the singers met to select and rehearse the hymns to be sung at the church meeting at the meeting house.

At 10 A. M. came union meeting, which was a number of social meetings held at the same hour, the brethren usually going to the sisters’ rooms.

The brethren and sisters were seated in two rows facing each other at opposite sides of the room; doubtless it sounds more stiff to alien ears than to one brought up from childhood in the customs of the community. There was cheerful chat of this and other Christmas days, and singing of new and old songs, and passing around of pans of cracked nuts and pop- corn, etc.

At 11 o’clock lunch was carried around to the rooms in big pans by some of the young brethren and sisters—great quarter sections of the most delicious cake, if memories may be trusted, and slices of creamy, home-made cheese and whitest bread and pie.

At 1 P. M. all the families assembled at the meeting house. The services were the same as at the usual Sunday meetings, except that there were special hymns and special readings from scriptures, old and new.

After meeting baskets of choice apples were carried around and the gifts which had been prepared for each one—usually some article of clothing somewhat nicer than common.

At 4 P. M. came the principal meal of the day, and afterwards a big basket was carried around to the rooms to receive offerings of clothing for the poor. All were expected to give something from their own store. And the day closed with quiet talk, probably interspersed with singing.


Hail, hail, the beautiful morn hath dawned
The joy of angels and men;
The star of the east, with beauty beyond
All others has risen again.
Awake, disciples of Christ, and sing,
Your robes of gladness put on,
And precious gifts and offerings bring
Our loved Redeemer to crown.

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor frankincense sweet
Our Savior asks from our hands,
But hearts that with love and tenderness beat
To bless and comfort his lambs.
Go seek and feed my wandering sheep,
Forgive the erring and lost,
Thus prove your love for me, and thus reap
The precious fruits of the cross

Extracted from: J. P. MacLean, "The Society of Shakers. Rise, Progress and Extinction of the Society at Cleveland, O." Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications. 9 (July 1900): 80-84. A digital edition of this publication is available online.

Editor’s Note: Sister Elmina Philips (b. 1841 – d. 1912) was the last school teacher at the Shaker Community in North Union, Ohio. She was the daughter of Elder Freeman Phillips of the Mill Family, who joined the society in 1841. She left the Shakers in 1875, first teaching at the East School in Lakewood, Ohio and later residing in Cleveland, Ohio. She is credited by Shaker music historian Roger L. Hall as being the author of the Christmas hymn above.