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A Cattaraugus Welsh Christmas and New Year

Victorian Tree
Croeso! Nadolig Llawen. Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

That's Welsh for "Welcome! Merry Christmas. Happy New Year." During the nineteenth century such a greeting might have been spoken in parts of western New York. After 1840, hundreds of immigrants from Wales settled in Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Wyoming counties. Many migrated from Welsh settlements in central New York where they first settled.

The largest Welsh communities in western New York were in the rural agricultural townships of Freedom (Cattaraugus Co.) and Centerville (Allegany Co.). As more Welsh arrived, the Welsh settlement spilled over into nearby towns and counties. With a population estimated between 800-1000, "Little Cattaraugus" was overshadowed by such Welsh settlement giants as Scranton (PA) and Remsen-Steuben (NY). Still, Cattaraugus (as the settlement was generally referred to) was the largest Welsh settlement in western New York and an oasis for the Welsh Baptists in that state.

Welsh Customs Come to Western New York

Welsh immigrants brought their cheese and butter making skills, religion, language, and customs to Cattaraugus. They established four Welsh-language church societies and built a half dozen chapels with Biblical names like Ebenezer, Carmel, Salem and Siloam. Some of their customs were associated with Christmas and New Years. (To learn more about Welsh holiday customs, read this 1878 traveler's account of Christmas and New Years in Wales.)

In Cattaraugus Christmas and New Year's dinner were gathering times for friends and family. Sometimes as many as fifty people attended dinner. The feast might feature chicken or rooster pie, or oysters and crackers. "Welsh dainties" or baked goods topped off the meal. At one New Year's dinner, guests enjoyed a year-old plum pudding, brought over the ocean by an immigrant who had just arrived from Wales. Gifts were given. The old Welsh custom of paying debts on New Year's Day was also observed. The highpoints of the Welsh holiday season were the special Christmas literary meetings and the New Year's Eisteddfod competition.

Merry Literary Meetings


Below: Poem written in 1884 by Jonah G. Thomas (1843-1910). Thomas, a Cattaraugus Welsh farmer, teacher and poet, championed the Eisteddfod and the use of the Welsh language. He married local Welsh poet, Jane Griffiths. [From the autograph book of Hannah Johns. Courtesy of Miriam Martin Wells.]

poem In the late 1870s, a "literary awakening" swept over the Cattaraugus Hills. Each Welsh chapel organized a literary, ethical, and religious society. These societies sponsored competitive literary meetings, popular in Wales and Welsh America. While Yankee American literary meetings featured famous or expert speakers who lectured to the people, Welsh literary meetings emphasized the participation of ordinary people. It was customary for the Welsh to hold special literary meetings during Christmas and New Year's week.

Smaller literary meetings or cyfarfodydd llenyddel were sponsored by individual chapels. The congregation gathered in the chapel either at Christmas or New Year's to recite poems and essays, debate topics, and sing solos, duets, quartets, and choral music. Welsh hymns, carols, and glees (four part songs) were sung. Glees celebrated seasonal themes such as sleighing or a New Year welcome. The Welsh said farewell to the Old Year and welcomed the New. At Christmas, they celebrated the birth of "God's greatest gift to the world."


Below Right: Rev. William Rowlands, a prominent Calvinistic Methodist preacher from the Oneida Settlement, spoke out against literary meetings and Eisteddfodau. He visited Cattaraugus in 1855, preaching at the dedication of the Salem Church.

Rev. William RowlandsNot everyone approved of the literary meetings and esiteddfodau. Those Welsh of strict fundamentalist persuasion equated such competitions with "raising the devil," probably because the meetings were a source of amusement and enjoyment, having little to do with worship. Some Welsh ministers held that the debates promoted division among the people. Composing frivilous poetry was wasted time that might better be spent on one's salvation.

Christmas Trees for the Welsh

Customs from other cultures gradually crept into the Welsh literary meetings. Welsh immigrants borrowed the Christmas tree from their Yankee neighbors who in turn had gotten it from the Germans. Even the Cattaraugus Welsh Baptists joined in.




For "novelty and variety," the Freedom, New York Welsh Baptists added a Christmas tree and gifts to their 1883 literary meeting. They hung gifts on the tree after the fashion of the Americans. There were so many gifts, the Welsh decided they would need two trees. Sampson Owens, the old tailor who had come from Merthyr Tydfil many years before, went out to the woods and cut two fine trees and brought them to the chapel. For the next two days the women decorated and prepared the trees. When finished, the trees were beautiful! An eyewitness described the trees as "holding fruits for the body and soul." The branches bore clothing, silver and gold watches, elephants and other animals, a dictionary, and other good books. Their first tree-trimming was so successful that the Welsh claimed to overshadow the more experienced Yankees in such an endeavor. After four hours of music and literary competition, the gifts were distributed. In later years, a gift-ladened ferris wheel replaced the tree.


Above: By the 1880's Welsh immigrants had adopted American Christmas customs. This illustration shows a Christmas tree, gifts and Santa Claus from an 1889 advertisement appearing in Y Drych, a Welsh-American newspaper.

By the early twentieth century scenes like the following were common among Cattaraugus Welsh-Americans:

I was such a little girl when my family came by train from Detroit, Mich. to Arcade to visit my grandma and grandpa Jones [probably John L. Jones, 1850-1922] at Sandusky. I can still remember their farm house on Sandbank Rd. The kitchen was big and warm and smelled so good of Christmas. We were going to the little Welsh Church [Salem] for Christmas eve services and maybe Santa Claus. Aunts, uncles and cousins were tucked warmly into a huge, hay filled sleigh drawn by grandpa's horses. Then great blankets - called "horseblankets" were put around us. While we were at church Santa did appear. He was a short, chubby little man and I was so excited. But I learned later he was my uncle Merle - Santa's helper of course. On the way back to grams house I'm sure 'visions of sugar plums danced in my head.' This was my first remembrance of Christmas so long ago.

--Betty Carver Phillips, Olean, N.Y. (a newsclipping in a scrapbook kept by Mary Thomas Davis)

"New Year's and the Eisteddfod Are One"

On the New Year the Cattaraugus Welsh held a settlement-wide cultural competition called an Eisteddfod. In Wales such competitions were of ancient origin dating back to at least the 12th century. Nineteenth-century Welsh immigrants brought the Eisteddfod to America where it flourished after the Civil War.

In Cattaraugus the Ebenezer Baptist chapel in Freedom, being the largest of the Welsh chapels, was the site of the local Eisteddfod. Eyewitnesses claimed that 600 to 1000 people might attend. Welsh families came from all over the settlement in their sleighs and cutters, braving the cold and blustery Cattaraugus winters to celebrate Welsh culture and the New Year.

A council announced categories of competition in advance so entrants would have plenty of time to prepare. At the Eisteddofod entries were presented and judged. Categories included poetry, essays on cultural, moral, or intellectual topics, songs, translations, handwriting and choral renditions. Each church sent a choir to compete. Local events also inspired competitions.


The Rochester and State Line Rail Road was a topic of competition at one Cattaraugus Eisteddfod. A section of track running between Freedom and Farmersville is shown below. [Glass plate negative, Elce Slocum]

railroad track At the 1879 Cattaraugus Eisteddfod, John R. Johns of Fairview won first place for his song on the new rail road. The Rochester and State Line Rail Road, completed in late 1878, passed directly through the Welsh farmland, causing much excitement and hopes for economic prosperity.

Few married women seem to have entered the competitions, but many young single women and girls competed in the recitation category. One adult woman, Jane Griffiths Thomas of Fairview, not only entered but won one of the poetry competitions. She was recognized by her fellow countrymen for her verse-making.


Below: An 1884 poem by Jane Griffiths Thomas (1836-1912), Cattaraugus Welsh poet. She was married to fellow-Welsh poet Jonah G. Thomas. [From the autograph book of Hannah Johns. Courtesy of Miriam Martin Wells.]

poem Singing was everywhere at the Eisteddfod. Everyone sang in a non-competitive congregational style. Special groups performed. The "Choir of the Hearth," consisting of nine children of John and Elizabeth Morgans, sang Welsh favorites like "Men of Harlech". Patriotic American songs were included, an expression of loyalty for their adopted land. By the latter half of the nineteenth century a special anthem, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers, was sung at the close of competitions. This song, written in 1856, was fast becoming the national song of Wales, being sung wherever the Welsh gathered.

One can imagine the old Welsh Baptist chapel in Freedom, filled to capacity. Welsh families, men, women and children lined the pews. There were so many in attendance some had to stand. It was the most wonderful event of the year. Light from candles and oil lamps brightened faces and made shadows dance on walls and ceiling. Heating stoves crackled, popped and hissed as the fires died down. The Old Year ended, the New Year began. The friendly competition was over and it was time to go home. Under a cold, clear jewel-like sky, the horses, snorting white clouds of breath, waited patiently with the sleighs in nearby sheds.

From the platform in the warm and cozy chapel, Elizabeth (Mrs. John) Morgans, sang in Welsh:

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn anwyl i mi, Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri...

The land of my fathers, the land of my choice, the land in which poets and minstrels rejoice.

On the chorus hundreds of voices thundered out:

Gwlad, gwlad, pleidol wyf i'm gwlad...

Wales! Wales! fav'rite land of Wales!

In the midst of a cold and snowy Cattaraugus winter, national pride and hiraeth (great longing for home) filled their hearts. The New Years Eisteddfod brought the Cattaraugus Welsh home again.

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© Barbara R. Henry