Woodstock’s first Christmas Eve

Arnold Blanch Holiday Card (HSW Archives)

Every year on Christmas Eve, Woodstockers of all ages flock to the center of town to witness and celebrate the arrival of Santa Claus. To those gathered, the question on their minds isn’t if Santa will actually arrive, but how. In a town where secrets aren’t usually secrets for long, the magical way Santa makes his entrance each December 24 is the one bit of information that is immune to the modern demands of transparency. Each year is unique. Perhaps he will appear on the church steeple and require the Woodstock Fire Department to assist his descent. It is also quite possible he may simply wander into town on the back of a sauntering elephant. Or, as he has, his arrival might be from on high, repelling down from a flying saucer swung into place by a large crane. More fittingly, he just might arrive driving a Volkswagen hippie bus. After all, it is Woodstock.

Over the years, dedicated volunteers have worked in secrecy to plan the annual Christmas Eve celebration on Woodstock’s Village Green. And yet, despite the crowd their efforts will attract, few among those gathered to witness Woodstock’s unique celebration of the season will know the name of the woman who started it all. Her name was Agnes Schleicher.

Change comes slowly to small towns in the Catskills and it comes in various shapes and forms. While loud voices will, at times, attempt to forge the change they demand, it is, more often than not, the quiet deeds of volunteers and involved citizens that, over time, moves our community forward. Such was the way of Agnes Schleicher. Each day, along with her husband, she would open her small gift store, the Jack Horner Shoppe, offering delightful European treasures to visitors and townspeople alike. Yet, within her, also lay a love for the theater and a desire to direct. So it was, in 1932, that Schleicher agreed to take on the design and production of a new event in Woodstock — a Christmas Eve celebration. With her decision to do so, Agnes Schleicher would inaugurate what has become Woodstock’s most enduring tradition — a tradition illustrative of the fact that a community’s social fabric is woven not by our politics or economic status, but by that which we return to our neighbors.

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While simplicity, creativity and beauty were the hallmarks of Woodstock’s first Christmas Eve, most of us who gather today would be surprised were we transported back almost eight and a half decades to that inaugural celebration. Surprised, possibly, by the religious theme central to Schleicher’s presentation. And, as the bell from the Reformed Church summoned Woodstockers to the Village Green precisely at 6 p.m., surprised by the fact that there was any celebration at all. For it had been a year in which Woodstockers could be forgiven were the joys of the season not at the forefront of their hearts and minds. The Depression that gripped the nation had also crept quietly through the Catskills. Self-sufficiency, while always a part of Woodstock’s DNA, had been increasingly called upon to stave off the impact of unemployment and the absence of economic opportunity. While a “New Deal” was promised as a part of the collective future, the past excesses of capitalism haunted the spirit of the season like a ghost straight from the pen of Dickens. Or so it seemed.

As the community gathered in response to the bells, streetlights, as is still the custom today, went dark in the center of town. The preparation that Agnes Schleicher had purposely undertaken in the weeks following Thanksgiving was about to take form. On cue, a lone beam of light dawned and directed the vision of all towards the front of the Reformed Church — illuminating its steeple, its stately white pillars, and a single star that hung centered between them. The conversations of those gathered fell silent as the lyrics of The First Noel rose out of the darkness. As they would throughout the evening, the choir remained invisible, out of the light, disembodied voices on a cold winter’s night. The evening’s program, as crafted by Schleicher, would take the form of a tableau; three scenes in which the nativity would be unveiled by voiceless actors in costume.

When the choir stilled, the voice of Reverend Harvey Todd broke through the evening air, offering passages from Matthew and Luke, including:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. 

As the choir introduced the beginning of the tableau with Adeste Fidelis, angels in “shinning whiteness” appeared at the center of the church portico arranged in the “graduated manner of the pipes of an organ.” Below and to one side of the angels, shepherds followed, as the music transitioned to While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. As the angels remained at the center, the three wise men entered opposite the shepherds, doing so as the choir brought forth, We Three Kings of Orient Are.

Following a pause so that anticipation would build for the final scene, the choir began Silent Night. With that, the angels parted, moving slowly towards the interior of the church. As they did, they revealed, for the first time, the holy family, as Mary and Joseph stood looking down at the Christ child. When Silent Night and the simple magic of the moment faded, the shepherds and wise men moved up the steps of the portico toward the child as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear brought the tableau to an end

With that, the spotlight dimmed. The church grew dark and the crowd’s attention was redirected to a sight more familiar to those who, today, make the yearly pilgrimage to the center of town — the arrival of Santa Claus.

To put it simply, for a more simple time, Santa arrived not by sitting atop a Woodstock Festival dove or by being shot out of a cannon positioned on a rooftop above — rather, having waited patiently at Peper’s Garage — he made his way slowly up Mill Hill Road by truck with a pack of gifts square on his back and “shaking his sleigh bells merrily.” Taking up position beneath the lighted evergreen on the Village Green, Santa proceeded to distribute gifts to over 150 Woodstock children — many, no doubt, clutching the only gift they would receive that Depression shadowed Christmas. As Santa went about his business, the choir, finally liberated from the darkness, led villagers in the singing of Good King Wenceslas.

Writing in her Kingston Daily Freeman column Sparks, Woodstock author and artist Marion Bullard later recalled that first Christmas Eve and the impact of Schleicher’s effort:

“The sky that night was a deep vibrant blue and hundreds of stars gleamed through the tall maples in front of the lighted facade of the historic Dutch Reformed Church. The air was still and the new snow was white over the village square…Most of us there found it unforgettable and felt the strength and reality of the beautiful story that has come undimmed down through the centuries. I wondered that night if perhaps this was the beginning of something better…”

For her work, Agnes Schleicher would receive high praise. The Catskill Mountain Star would report that the evening was “so consistently excellent as to establish a precedent in local tradition. Miss Schleicher held to a symbolism that was simple yet tremendously effective.” Marion Bullard furthered singled out Schleicher for giving “the observance a simplicity and beauty that establish her as a capable director.”

Schleicher, however, was also “capably” aided by a number of Woodstockers that evening as she unveiled the essential elements of her production. As noted by the Kingston Daily Freeman, adding “to the warm beauty of the tableau was the fact that those participating were dressed in costumes from Persia and Palestine, which were lent by Maud and Miska Petersham and Mrs. Eric Carl Lindin.” Winifred Haile directed the choir while Mrs. George Riseley played the organ. Casting drew on the children of the community. Alice Houst played the part of Mary, with Margaret Ives as Joseph (a uniquely all-female version of the holy family). The three wise men were Peter Leaycraft, Robert Cantine, and Karl Schleicher. The assembled shepherds were portrayed by Ludwig Baumgarten, Rudolph Baumgarten, Toshi Ohta, Martin Cantine, and Alex Easton, while Nancy Grimm, Mary Adeline Summers, Mary Clough, Florence de Ruyter, Louise Shultis, Ruth Shultis, and Judith Cohen brought the angels center stage. The evening was sponsored by the Community Association and saw “Mr. Houst” directing the lighting (you know you are in a small town when the local press refers to an individual simply as “Mr.” and readers know exactly who is referenced), while Nino Faggi and Hans Schleicher handled the spotlight.

Though Agnes Schleicher, long ago, handed over the reins of directing the celebration, Christmas Eve on the Village Green remains at the center of our town’s traditions. For more than 80 years, Woodstockers have found their way to the center of town on that most special of nights. Through times of war, economic turmoil, and periods of political and social upheaval, December 24 has continued to serve as an integral part of Woodstock’s foundation.

Perhaps, at the end of a tired and troubled 2016, the hopes of 1932, as expressed by Marion Bullard, that we might “believe in the fundamental good intentions of our neighbors in the town and, for a little while feel gently, kindly and hopeful,” are out of step with the pervading cynicism and partisanship of the day.

But wrapped in the glad tidings of neighbors, music and the anticipation of Santa’s well-secreted arrival, Agnes Schleicher’s gift of the season continues to draw us together beneath the shadow of Overlook. For, if there is one certainty in these uncertain times, it is in the knowledge that Santa will arrive again next year and Woodstock will be on hand to welcome him.

Happy holidays to all — and, to all, a goodnight.

With thanks to JoAnn Margolis for her continued work overseeing HSW’s archives.

Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.

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