A Christmas Letter from Madam Brett


The Madam Brett homestead (Photo by Rolf Müller)

In 1709, Roger and Catharyna (Rombout) Brett, with their children and slaves, emigrated to what is now Beacon from New York City and built a Dutch-style home on Fishkill Creek that would remain in the family for seven generations and nearly 250 years.

The homestead was on 28,000 acres that Catharyna inherited from her fur-trader father, his share of 85,000 acres purchased from the Wappinger Indians. The land was partitioned in 1708 among the Van Cortlandt, Verplanck and Rombout/Brett families.

After Roger Brett drowned in the Hudson River in 1720, Catharyna became a widow at age 31, establishing herself as a entrepreneur who organized the first produce co-op in the Highlands. Later, during the Revolutionary War, when the home was occupied by a granddaughter, it is thought that George Washington and the Marquis de La Fayette are among its guests.

In 1954, the historic home was nearly torn down to make room for a supermarket but saved by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and turned into a museum. It is closed because of the pandemic but otherwise the DAR offers tours every second Saturday from May to December.

For the holidays this year, Emily Murnane of the DAR shared a speculative letter from Catharyna that described what Christmas might have been like at the home in the early 18th century. She researched Dutch culture, colonial festivities and the development of the American holiday to elaborate on an essay written by Charlotte Finkel.

“The intention was not just to explore Christmas past, but also to imagine how Catharyna and her neighbors would have shared in their celebrations,” Murnane explained. “And even if it’s historical fiction at heart, it’s all based in fact — every character mentioned was a real person from Madam Brett’s life.”

An introduction, the letter and a postscript are below, along with a recording of Murnane, as Catharyna, reading it from inside the home.

Hello, neighbors. It’s so wonderful to have you all here for a visit on this cold December night. I’ve just returned from my afternoon survey and am pleased to report that all is well in Rombout Precinct. Everyone is preparing for the long nights of winter, but now is the time to enjoy the fruits of our labor before we turn to the hard work of surviving til spring. After all, a little levity now will help to keep us warm in the days ahead.

And with neighbors of every sort, that levity comes in an astonishing variety. Our family has picked up several unusual practices by sharing this time of year with our friends, just as they have learned new traditions from us.

In fact, I wrote a letter to my sister this afternoon attempting to describe what the season is like here. Let me read it to you, and perhaps you will find it interesting, how the Hudson Valley celebrates unlike any place in the world …

My dear sister,

I received your letter regarding your safe return home from your last visit to us here in the Precinct. The boys and I agree that it would have been wonderful to have your family stay a while longer but I understand your hesitance to willingly endure a winter in our little frontier.

Perhaps you will consider coming to visit again come springtime.

If you did ever decide to spend a winter with us at the Homestead, you would find that there are no people in the world that pass a December quite like the people of this Valley. Never in our childhoods in New York did I see people band together so willingly and cheerfully to brave the hardships of this time of year. Though the harvest has just ended, soon the winter will really begin and bring with it all the icy winds and deep snows of the season. When the Creek and the River freeze, there will be long times when we see no one from outside the Valley. That is when we must take care of each other.

It is during these difficult months that I learn the most about my neighbors, as we share our food and gather around each others’ fires, banded together against the cold. Around those hearths, I’ve learned to speak the languages and love the music of my friends, and in return they have grown to enjoy the food we enjoy and play the games we played as children. And even though we come from different lands and beliefs, naturally it occurs here and there that we borrow practices from our neighbors as easily as we borrow flour for bread.

For example, you must remember how as children, we would lie awake all night listening for the sound of Sinterklaas arriving to leave little gifts in our shoes? We were always so excited to leave out handfuls of hay to feed his magic white horse, but we were always terrified of his friend Zwarte Piet, who would climb down the chimney to snatch up bad children and send them back to his home in Spain.

Still, as soon as my boys were old enough to celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, I told them all the same stories — about Sinterklaas, with his long beard and magnificent fur coat, who visits good children on the Feast of Saint Nicholas in early December and leaves fruit and coins in their shoes. You remember how special those mornings were, when each of us would get an orange or spice cake all to ourselves.

My family celebrated Sinterklaas last week, just like when you and I were young. We decorated the house with the traditional boughs of holly and little ornaments of dried fruits and nuts. The boys are getting a little too old to believe in Sinterklaas but we still enjoy our treats the morning of the 6th and tell stories about the old saint and his friend Piet. It was only a matter of time before the other children heard the stories too.

I still recall the confusion when our friend Peter DuBois’s daughter tearfully asked him if Sinterklaas also visited good French children, or  if he only left presents for Dutch boys and girls. Most of our neighbors did not celebrate Saint Nicholas’s Day — many had never even heard of it.

But this has changed. This year, we invited some of our close friends to enjoy the afternoon of Sinterklaas with us. The children played outside in the snow, which had only just begun to fall, and the rest of us sat with warm drinks near the fire, telling stories and singing old songs. It was such a festive occasion that I’m sure we’ll find ourselves doing the same next year, and for many years after.

And while our friends have learned about Sinterklaas from us, we have also learned new ways to celebrate from our friends. You know that in some places throughout the colonies, it is against the law to celebrate Christmastide. In New England they call it ungodly and pagan to celebrate the birth of Christ, so they pass the 12 days of Christmas as though they were ordinary days. While I understand the necessity of following the word of God, I doubt He would care that His people indulge in a little harmless merriment now and again.

And there are so many ways to be merry, when you’re surrounded by all sorts of merry people. Of course the 25th is still a prayerful day, and we expect to spend the afternoon at the Church so long as the roads are mostly clear of snow. But Christmastide is a wonderful excuse to invite our friends for evenings at home, or to go visiting. I’ve always enjoyed a night ride across the Precinct, but there is something special about the midwinter nights when the children are put to bed early and one might take a short sleigh ride under the moon to where the candlelit windows of a neighbor’s house are glinting on the snow, where inside there is something warm to drink and someone playing a reel on the violin.

And always, there is something different to eat — the Dutch kerstbrood with raisins that we know so well, but also the English mincemeat pies and plum puddings, or French gingerbread. And our German neighbors, upon trying kerstbrood for the first time, were delighted to share the pastry they call “stollen” — so similar to kerstbrood that many of the others can’t tell the difference between the two.

Though that is mostly where the similarity ends. I have done business with German neighbors across the River that do not stop at decorating with boughs of holly, but cut down whole evergreen trees to bring into the home and cover with candles. It makes for an impressive sight, but I doubt it will catch on with as much success as Sinterklaas.

More similarity is found with our English neighbors, whom Roger [her late husband, who was an English immigrant] called his countrymen.

While we grew up listening to our English friends plan for their 12-day Christmas, it was Roger who brought these traditions into our home. And though he has been gone many years now, we still celebrate an English Christmastide. Every Christmas Day, after the church services and reading of the Nativity Story, we bring in the Yule Log that will burn on the hearth for the whole Christmastide. This year Francis chopped the Log and brought it home himself, which he is glowing with pride over.

While it is common to invite a few neighbors to decorate the great oaken Log and witness its lighting, this is one tradition we practice alone as a household. After all, it was Christmas Day that we first sat for dinner together in this Homestead. Gathered close to the glow of the fire, with all the lights of the house put out, the world becomes small and quiet. Roger was the one who used to tell ghost stories, but now we mostly reminisce about years past, and make wishes for the year to come.

The twelfth night of Christmastide is such a flurry of activity that I hardly know how to describe it to you. While you’re likely used to spending the 5th of January preparing a small feast for your family and a few friends, we have grown used to hosting quite the gathering at the Homestead. There are plenty of entertainments — always music, made by whatever instruments are in attendance and accompanied by a crowd of voices, dancing of jigs and reels, sometimes a short play performed in the parlor, almost always of a Biblical or moral sort.

The feast is the greatest we prepare all year — venison, rabbit, and wild pigeon trapped from the surrounding woods, hot pumpkin and apple pastries made from the year’s harvest, roasted chestnuts fresh  from the fire and sweet preserves spread on fresh baked bread, all enough to feed whoever may stop by.

And many stop by on Twelfth Night — not only to celebrate, but to exchange quit-rent for the year, usually consisting of a few fattened fowl. Others come wassailing, or going door-to-door singing songs in exchange for a cup of hot punch and a few coins. Throughout the night, the door will shake with knocks and be answered to find a rosy-cheeked crowd of tipsy travelers, cups in hand and a bucket for collecting donations.

By the end of the night, most of the guests will spill into the dooryard to join in the cheerful, if not a little rowdy, chorus. In England, landlords traditionally give gifts to their tenants in exchange for a song. Those who come a-wassailing teasingly request the same of me — a practice I’ve submitted to with good humor. Never mind that many of my neighbors purchased their land from me outright — they have given me so much friendship, how could I refuse them a few cups of wine?

I said as much to Chief Nimham, when recently he and his family passed by the Mill on their way to visit family on the other side of the Precinct. They stopped to rest a while, he sending his sons down to the creekside where my own boys were skipping stones. We discussed his travels, and preparations both of our communities had made for the winter, and naturally the conversation turned to our respective celebrations.

Though many of the Wappingers have converted to Christianity, they still observe their traditions — traditions that are not terribly different from our own. When the harvest is done and the winter looms ahead, they too gather in warm places and travel to visit each others’ homes, sharing food and remembering stories and songs taught to them by elders long since passed.

This was why he was traveling — to see his distant family before snow made the journey impossible, because some of that family might not survive the cold until spring, so now is the time to celebrate being together. Nimham was just as surprised by the similarities as I. Before he left, I gave him a loaf of kerstbrood, and he promised to stop at the Mill on his return so we would know he was safely home.

And that is what this time of year has come to mean to me. In defiance of a season characterized by hardship and loss, we have managed to build a new season of sharing and warmth.

Come visit us, some winter, and see it for yourself.

With love, your sister, Catharyna

Does our Christmastide sound strange to you? I imagine not. After all, how many of you plan on celebrating this season with caroling, or baking, or decorating a tree? What makes these things special is not just where they came from, but what happened when they came together, and they first came together here in the place we all call home. The Christmas you celebrate is a Hudson Valley Christmas. And though these festivities have become beloved all around the world, I think we can agree, neighbor to neighbor, that there is still no place like our home for this time of year.

And for many years, Melzingah Chapter has done a wonderful job of making this Homestead feel like home during Christmas. When the Tioronda Garden Club decorates with the same sort of evergreen boughs I would have used, and the community of Beacon comes together in the cheerful raising of toasts, the Homestead is made merry all over again, just as it was when my family lived here.

This year, the Homestead will be quiet at Christmastime. But in times like this, when we are separated by both distance and years, there is still warmth to be found in remembering the Christmases past. So in honor of our friendship, raise a glass with me. To the Homestead, to Melzingah Chapter, and to the traditions we share! Merry Christmas, and goodnight!

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