Sortwell Yule celebration once holiday tradition

Posted:  Saturday, December 23, 2017 - 8:00am

In days of yore, Christmas in Wiscasset included a family tradition in the woods where carols were sung around a crackling bonfire, good fellowship was enjoyed and gifts exchanged in the spirit of the Yule holiday’s true meaning.

Seaver Leslie and his relatives long for those bygone days. He and others shared memories of them Dec. 20 at Town Talk, a bi-weekly gathering on Wednesday afternoons at Wiscasset Public Library. 

The annual Yule gathering took place in the Sortwell Forest and later in the woods near the Old Stone Farm on Dickenson Road where Leslie lives with his wife Anne. Leslie and others descendants of the Sortwell family recalled the annual celebration began in the early 1900s and continued for nearly a half century.

It took place in the Advent season, to celebrate the coming of the baby Jesus and his promised return according to Christian tradition. Leslie said weeks went into its planning that began with clearing the area in the woods where it took place.

Based on what’s been passed down from one generation to the next, he said the celebration took place under a starlit sky around the Winter Solstice or on Christmas Eve. A perfectly shaped fir tree was chosen and covered with candles that were lit like the very first Christmas tree. Tomato soup was simmered over a fire pit and freshly baked crescent-shaped buns from the Sortwell kitchen were warmed. Coffee was brewed and sweet cider mulled for all to share.

Revelers were carried to the celebration on an ox-driven wagon along a winding path from Willow Lane. If there was snow, a sled was used.

“They would sing carols led  by Grampa Nashe and afterwards the Sortwells would give gifts to the people who worked for them including their children,” Leslie added. “It was done every Christmas in appreciation for all of their hard work in keeping the Sortwell Farm going.”

One hired hand, Will Colby, drove the wagon team or sled. “In later years he became quite an accomplished wood carver,” continued Leslie. Colby’s woodcarvings included detailed miniatures of ox-drawn wagons and sleds.

Around World War II, Leslie said, the Yule celebration included recreating a living crèche with children playing the parts of Joseph, Mary, the three Wise Men and shepards all dressed in colorful, elaborate costumes. The pageant included a reading from the Book of John telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Although Leslie couldn’t be sure, he thought this was around the time the celebration was moved to the clearing near the Old Stone Farm.

In his mind’s eye, Tim Ellis, another Sortwell relative, remembers a large wooden wagon being pulled by a huge animal, an ox perhaps and wonderful gifts being exchanged all around. “It’s a magic moment in my memory,” he said.

Wendy Ross Eichler of Willow Lane remembers her mother taking her to a clearing in the woods and pointing to a tree where the celebrations were held. “She told me, she remembered the tree having been lit with real candles on Christmas night.”

Wiscasset native Karl Marean recalled attending one celebration as a toddler and being given a jack-in-the-box.

The Sortwell Yule tradition served as an inspiration for two books, “The Christmas Tree in the Woods” by Susan Smith and “Country Christmas – A Reminiscence” by Paul Hoffman.  Smith wrote her book while living in the historic Smith House on Federal Street. The stately home, among the best-known in Wiscasset, is across from the library. Smith’s granddaughter, Susan Lowndes Blagden, now lives there with her husband Don.

Hoffman, a friend of the Sortwells, wrote an article about the celebration for The Atlantic that appeared in the magazine’s December 1932 edition. The story was later reprinted in book form. The library has two original copies of Hoffman’s book among its archives collection. It’s available online to read for free.

Hoffman’s article describes the place where the Yule celebrations took place as “a sheltered spot ringed with stones charred from the fires of many Christmases.”  The event attracted as many as 70 folks, he writes, including the Sortwells’ many relatives along with friends and neighbors. The tradition continued  into the late 1940s.

Wilberta Nichols West grew up on Willow Lane in the 1930s. She remembers counting the days down to the celebration. “We lived close enough that my family could walk to it. It was a wonderful thing to see.”

Judy Flanagan said the next Town Talk will be in the new year. “We’re always open to suggestions for future topics and everyone is welcome to attend,” she said.