Holiday History in the Genesee Valley
Twinkling lights and trimmed trees, carols and cocoa mean one thing: Christmas time has arrived in the Genesee Valley. But our region’s rich and diverse history means there are other equally rich winter holiday traditions — many that have nothing to do with nativity scenes or Santa Claus.
Haudenosaunee Winter Traditions
Long before European settlers arrived, the native Haudenosaunee thrived across upstate New York, including the area now called the Genesee Valley. One of the five member nations of the Haudenosaunee, the Seneca Nation of Indians (Onondowahgah), almost exclusively inhabited the land between western and central New York for at least 10,000 years. Haudenosaunee observances traditionally include 13 annual ceremonies, corresponding with the cycles of new moons.
The Midwinter Ceremony, the most sacred of these observances, occurs the fifth day after the first new moon of the year — anywhere from mid-January to early February. Also known as the ceremony of “Most Excellent Faith,” this midwinter observance is a time for thanksgiving to the beneficent spirits and the great Creator, for ritual cleansing, and for sacrifice and feasting.
While colonization decimated local indigenous populations, observances of the sacred Midwinter Ceremony continue in today’s Haudenosaunee communities. This ceremony begins with a ceremonial stirring of ashes and includes eight days of activities and rituals.
Learn more about the winter ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee cultures here.
A Festival of Lights - Hanukkah in the Genesee Valley
While the first European settlers of rural New York came with overwhelmingly Christian backgrounds and beliefs, Americans and immigrants of Jewish descent also found homes in the rolling fields of the Genesee Valley beginning in around the 1840s. Like the Haudenosaunee Midwinter Ceremony, the Jewish midwinter celebration of Hanukkah lasts eight nights and begins in December.
Hanukkah — or the festival of lights — is the most well-known Jewish holiday in the United States today, but early Jewish settlers likely gave it little thought or attention as they worked to endure harsh New York winters. Jewish tradition considers the 8 nights of Hanukkah of minor importance from a religious perspective, and struggling immigrant and farming families had few resources to spare on celebrating.
A movement from Jewish leaders in the late 19th and 20th centuries encouraged Jewish families to prioritize domestic and public observances of this holiday, which commemorates the dedication of the second temple of Jerusalem. By lighting candles on a menorah, feasting and exchanging gifts for Hanukkah, Jewish Americans leaned into their own traditions rather than becoming absorbed by the broader cultural obsession with Christmas.
The Chabad organization in nearby Pittsford, New York, hosts numerous public Hanukkah events each season including menorah lightings and concerts open to all to enjoy!
Celebrate the History
From indigenous ceremonies to solstice rituals and spirited Christmas festivities, the people of the Genesee Valley have been bringing light, meaning and merriment to the dark winter nights for generations. To help visitors, residents and the curious learn more about the history of the holidays in the Valley, the Genesee Country Village & Museum offers annual educational courses, events and workshops both online and at their Mumford, New York, living history museum.
However you celebrate the season, you’ll be surrounded by the beauty of falling snow, quaint historic villages and the rich history of diverse cultures who find their own ways to make the winter merry and bright.