Dinner, dancing, tree lighting Hessian-style

Unveiling the Hessian history of Long Island at East Hillside Cemetery


A tapestry of history, culture and community comes alive each December during the annual American Revolution Hessian Christmas Ceremony. Organized by a number of local organizations, the event is a celebration that transcends time, honoring the lives of Hessian soldiers who played a role in shaping American history.

Steve Russell Boerner, one of the organizers from the Cedar Swamp Hill Historical Society and the Underhill Society of America, said that the event has been held every year since 2016. It honors, and begins at, the historic East Hillside Cemetery in Glen Head, where Hessian soldiers, who were part of the British occupying force during the Revolution, are buried in unmarked graves.

Boerner added that he had planted a Christmas tree in that section of the cemetery, which symbolized the Hessians and their reported role in introducing Christmas traditions to the United States. The tree, now over 10 feet tall, has become a focal point of the ceremony.

“It’s very likely that the Hessians introduced Christmas to America, so we thought it was appropriate to remember that history,” Boerner said. “These people’s descendants and their histories are here today, so it’s important to commemorate them.”

The second part of the event takes place at the Reformed Church of Locust Valley, in Lattingtown. Valerie Siliato, the church administrator, explained that after the tree lighting and speeches at the cemetery, attendees head to the church to enjoy a dinner of traditional German food, such as bratwurst, provided by local vendors, as well as eggnog and other beverages, and live music. Siliato said that since the church is of Dutch origin, many Hessian soldiers would have worshipped there, and added their own cultural influence.

“Just the concept of having a Christmas tree or sending a Christmas card — these are all German traditions,” Siliato said. “In many ways, our traditions are their traditions, so it’s important to have some sense of that.”

The Socrates Lodge, a Masonic lodge with German roots that is based in Manhattan, is also involved in planning the ceremony. Steven Goetjen, a member of the lodge, said that it got involved through a collaboration with Boerner, who is a member of Oyster Bay’s Matinecock Masonic Lodge.

Originally an exclusively German-speaking lodge, the Socrates Lodge began holding meetings in English a decade ago. It has been pivotal in helping finance and organize the Hessian celebration. In recent years it has scaled down its involvement, but it still arranges for an accordion player to perform, and Goetjen emphasized the significance of commemorating the lives of the Hessians buried in East Hillside.

“Whether the Hessians were on the wrong or right side of the revolution, they certainly were people that were looking to make a better life for themselves,” he noted. “So the fact that they’re kind of buried in unmarked graves has never sat well with us. It’s kind of nice to do a little tribute to them.”

The event begins with a solemn walk to the cemetery and the Christmas tree. Boerner addresses the gathering, offering insights into the American Revolution and its relevance today. Bagpipers play “Amazing Grace,” the tree is lit, and there is caroling in English and German.

The celebration then moves to the Locust Valley church’s Fellowship Hall for the dinner, dancing, another tree lighting, and more carols.

The event is a testament to the collaborative efforts of the community — individuals, the Reformed Church and the Socrates Lodge — coming together to honor history, celebrate diversity, and build connections that transcend the passing years. The echoes of the past, the mix of cultures and the spirit of unity blend each December, inviting participants to join in the celebration of a shared heritage.

The Reformed Church, with its rich history and architectural charm, is a fitting backdrop for a ceremony that bridges the past and the present. History comes alive when the fellowship hall is filled with the sounds of carols in this moving celebration of the season.