Editor's note: The following article, which was first published in Dec. 2011, is a reflection on holiday traditions throughout the years and is written by Al Savolaine of the Matawan Historical Society.
As we celebrate the 325th anniversary of the founding of our town, let us see how winter holiday traditions have evolved through three centuries. Matawan-Aberdeen has a rich history with many interesting “nooks and crannies” to explore.
The Burrowes Mansion on Main Street, the Forman House at the corner of Ravine Drive and Wyckoff Street, and the Hunn-Hawkins House on Mill Road remind us of the 18th century. Christmas was a special time but not quite as festive as it is today because the Puritan influence in the English colonies was very strong. The Church was a central part of the Christmas celebration. The nativity story from the King James Version of the Bible would have been read and the minister in his sermon would have explained the significance of this joyous event. The Christmas tree came from the German immigrants after the American Revolution. Many Hessian soldiers decided to stay in America, rather than return to Europe.
This had an effect on our developing Christmas traditions. One very popular event in the village during the winter was organized by the prominent Samuel Forman family. They had sled riding parties at their house by the hill on the present Ravine Drive. This was great fun for our colonial ancestors.
During the 19th century local people were developing their own family traditions, but most activity was still centered on the church community. Special dinners and social events highlighted the holiday season. Ice skating was becoming popular on local ponds. The children were still sled riding down the hill by Ravine drive. Fraternal lodges and clubs were being established in town. The Matawan Journal (founded in 1869) would list in great detail the delicious items on the menu of the fire house Christmas dinner. People would cut their own Christmas trees from the nearby woods. During the holiday season relatives would pay their respects at the new Rose Hill Cemetery on Ravine Drive, which opened in 1858.
The beginning of the 20th century brought more changes to life in town. An electric trolley was built from Keyport through Matawan, ending in the Freneau section. A ride on the trolley down Main Street in the winter could be an adventure, considering there were frequent derailments when the snow covered the tracks. The Schock Department Store and the Cartan Department Store, located on Main Street, were colorfully decorated for Christmas and were popular with the shoppers in town. The Glenwood Institute, located on Church Street, and the local public school on Broad Street now had programs where the children sang holiday songs and recited poetry. The Matawan House Hotel, located near the center of town on Main Street was also a popular location for holiday events.
The Burrowes Mansion at this time was owned by Benjamin Franklin Strong Brown, the publisher of the Matawan Journal since 1890. Mr. and Mrs. Brown had seven very active children. This was a happy family during the holidays, with a large Christmas tree in the front parlor and nine stockings hanging on the mantel in the back parlor. The first child downstairs on Christmas morning rang a cow bell to signal to the rest of the family that Santa Claus had arrived, decorated the tree, and left presents.
In the 1920s Lake Matawan and Lake Lefferts were created by building dams on Gravelly Creek and Matawan Creek respectively. Ice skating parties with hot chocolate were enjoyable events for Matawan’s young people. The local clubs, lodges, and the YMCA were having annual Christmas parties.
Through the years, modern technology has changed the way families celebrate Christmas. Favorite movies such as “Miracle on 34th Street”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and “Christmas Vacation” have enriched the season. In the 1960s the Strathmore development project brought many new residents to the area. The local Jewish community constructed three synagogues in Matawan-Aberdeen during the 1960s and 1970s. Menorahs were prominently displayed along with Christmas trees and nativity scenes in local store windows.
Over 325 years our traditions have changed in some ways. However we still look forward to the holidays and find it easy to smile and wish our neighbors Seasons Greetings as we walk along the streets of historic Matawan-Aberdeen.
One big change is that you are reading this article on a computer!