Mary Castonguay serves Jill Soddard of Scarborough a cup of traditional wassail Saturday during the annual Christmas at Norlands celebration in Livermore. Wassail is a spiced cider with orange and lemon juices.

LIVERMORE FALLS — It’s always 1870 at the Washburn-Norlands living history center in Livermore. On Saturday, Norlands once again transported visitors back to Christmases past during its annual “Christmas at Norlands: A 19th-Century Holiday Celebration.”

Time machine engaged. It’s Dec. 25, 1870: the first Christmas federally recognized as a holiday. Prior to 1870, Christmas was a work day. Children went to school, and businesses were open.

According to a pamphlet prepared by Norlands’ staff, early 19th-century diary entries written by Livermore individuals at the time were “noteworthy in their lack of mention and interest in Christmas.”

It was business as usual. Work on the farm, break (or repair) roads, go to school, and head to the post office to send some mail.

“It was pretty low-key for most families,” said Carolyn Lawson, an interpreter at Norlands, speaking at the mansion, where the namesake family resided. But the Washburns weren’t exactly a typical family, even by the standards of the 19th-century.

According to Norlands’ website, in 1809 Israel Washburn Sr. purchased the homestead from Cyrus Hamlin, father on Hannibal Hamlin. He raised 10 children with his wife, Martha Benjamin, and lived a life of poverty until the seven Washburn sons rose to gain prominence in politics and business.

First-born Israel Washburn Jr. became a lawyer in 1834. He was elected to the Maine House of Representatives, and eventually served as Maine’s 29th governor. Second-born Algernon Sidney Washburn was a banker who rose to prominence in the Hallowell area. Elihu Benjamin Washburne added an extra “e” to his family’s name and was friends with Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Elihu served as U.S. minister to France, living in Paris from 1869 to 1877.

Cadwallader Colden Washburn moved west to make his fortune, settling in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where he became a lawyer, eventually forming Gold Medal Flour which can still be found in grocery stores today. Charles Ames Washburn got lucky in the gold rush and became a writer and editor of a newspaper in San Francisco. Samuel Benjamin Washburn was a seafarer, and was injured during the Civil War. He never really recovered from his injuries, and was always “lame.” William, the youngest Washburn son, was the only to become a U.S. senator, and, according to Lawson, rubbed it in his family’s face.

Anne Feith, portraying Anne Gibbs, makes molasses cookies in a wood stove Saturday during the Norlands Living History Center’s annual Christmas at Norlands celebration in Livermore. Feith says she loves cooking in a wood stove and claims it makes the cookies taste better. Keith Bean looks on from the left.

“He made everyone in the family call him senator,” said Lawson.

Dec. 25, 1870, was a bit of a blue Christmas at the homestead. According to Lawson, the only family members living at the mansion were Israel Sr. and Sam, a widower. There were no children in the halls, and it was very snowy. Lawson said it’s very likely Sam suffered from seasonal affective disorder; he talked in his journal from the time about how awful the weather was, and how depressed he was feeling.

Christmas in the big cities was a whole different experience. In 1870, Elihu was in Paris on Christmas Day.

“It was a very different Christmas. (His) wife writes about all the wonderful toys that they got the children … gifts from friends in the ambassador’s mansion in Paris,” said Lawson. 

On Saturday, the rooms of the Norlands mansion were decorate how they would have been in 1870, with pine boughs lining the mantles and a modest Christmas tree decorated with candles and wooden ornaments. Poinsettias and Christmas cactuses would have been notably absent.

“You don’t do poinsettias, or tropical plants, not unless you have a greenhouse sitting right here,” said Lawson. 

And celebrations were quick. Lawson said that trees were put up on Christmas Eve, and the candles were lit once, shown to the children, then put out with a wet sponge. Typically, the gifts were simple: a needle book, a pot holder, an apron, or a book. Christmas Day, the tree was taken down, and thrown outside.

“It’s not what we’re used to,” said Lawson. 

But there were a few similarities. Charles Dickens had already written “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement C. Moore —  were both already popular to read on Christmas Eve. 

Carolyn Lawson, right, speaks to visitors Jeannie and Bob Roemnich, from Bangor, at the Norlands Living History Center during the annual Christmas at Norlands celebration on Saturday.

On Saturday, Norlands offered many different activities to help transport visitors, including a spelling bee at the One Room Schoolhouse, a historic church service, and period music from Castlebay Music, a duo from Bristol.

As the 19th-century progressed, Livermore residents’ enjoyment of the new holiday grew as well.

“Pleasant. Went up and broke a road through the bog to Edgecombs. The children went to the mills to the Christmas tree,” Edward Pratt of Livermore wrote on Dec. 25, 1876.

“Papa and I went to the woods in the forenoon with the cattle and yarded logs onto the meadow. We had a Christmas tree in the evening. I had a pair of mittens and a pair of wristers hung,” wrote Hebert Tuck of Fayette in 1885.

However, in 1876, Samuel Washburn channeled his inner Scrooge.

“Christmas. The merry left out. Breaking roads all day,” his journal read.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.