From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society: Spirits at Hartley's Mill Pond
Jan 12, 2021
The writer of this piece, Connie Eshbach, is the vice president of the Rochester Historical Society. This is part of a series of Rochester history briefs.
There is an old English tradition called the " Burning of the Green.” On the eve of Epiphany, 12th night, the custom was to take down Christmas trees, wreaths, and other greenery. The folk lore underlying this tradition was the belief that spirits lived in the varied natural Christmas decorations. The greenery gave them shelter during the festive season. When the holidays ended, the spirits needed to be released. Failure to do so was believed to cause agricultural problems come spring.
The early Puritan settlers in Massachusetts would never have taken part in the fiery disposal of holiday greens as they didn't celebrate Christmas, believing it to be a pagan ritual and too closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Even though there have always been close historical ties between Rochester and Plymouth, they don't seem to have been extended to Christmas. According to one of Rochester's older residents, Conrad " Slim" Bernier who reminisced for the historical society, " Every year on Jan. 6th, the day of Epiphany, the town's people of Rochester would gather at Hartley's Mill Pond for the annual ritual of the "Burning of the Green.”
On these occasions residents would bring their Christmas trees to the pond where they would be added to the bonfire. Often, the pond would be frozen solid and perfect for ice skating.
Over time the annual event became a thing of the past, but in January of 1969, the Rochester Historical Society sponsored a return of the " Burning of the Green". As in the past, it was held at the mill pond alongside the Hartley Sawmill. They were assisted by Herman Morse, Jr., the Civil Defense Director, who provided the Civil Defense truck, generator and lights for the event. It was a success with up to 200 people attending. While the Society voted to make it a yearly event, unfortunately, that didn't happen. With this year's focus on fire pits and outdoor activities it feels a bit like a missed opportunity.