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By Claudia Johnson
If the Pulaski Citizen from a century ago were the only evidence, the existence of Christmas would be hard to prove. Thick winter issues from 1896-98, comprised of narrow columns of tight, tiny text and wordy, elaborate advertisements on multiple pages, offer few references to the holiday.
Granted, Christmas had been controversial even half a century earlier, but many of today’s traditions were being enjoyed by the late 1890s. There were so few yuletide acknowledgments one wonders if Victorian Giles Countians deemed them unworthy of advertising or news space. If not for community correspondents and a few discreet ads, no mention of Christmas would have been made at all.
One short item buried in the January 2, 1896, Citizen’s community news section told of festivities at Campbellsville.
“Our community had its usual share of Christmas festivities and other enjoyments,” the correspondent wrote. “The fun loving boys began the amusements on Christmas night by a grand serenade with a well organized band which discoursed sweet music on various instruments such as tin pans, tin horns, French-harps, etc. Thursday night a delightful pound supper was given at the residence of Mr. McKensey.”
The writer goes on to list several other folks who got married or gave “a dining” or “an entertainment” during the week after Christmas.
Several correspondents mentioned holiday visitors, especially those from out-of-town. Bethel’s correspondent said, “There is so much visiting, space will not allow us to mention all.”
At Lynnville a ‘Tacky Party” was given on December 28, 1895, and according to the reporter “was well attended and much enjoyed by all.” He also said, “A crowd of masqueraders created a good deal of fun for our town Friday night (December 27).” The report connects neither of these events to the holiday season.
Although none of the late 19th Century Citizen reports listed foods eaten at these gatherings, grocery advertisements reveal what may have been on the tables. One merchant simply listed turkey, oysters, mincemeat, celery, nuts, meats, oranges, bananas, raisins, sweet potatoes, cranberries, figs, raisins, grapes with the word “fresh” before each item.
Apparently some celebrations in 1897 had gone beyond merry. An editorial chastising the participants said, “There is always a certain class who think that if they do not drink a lot of mean whiskey to give them the boldness to execute the desires of deprived minds, that they have not celebrated Christmas at all. A man who so forget himself, even if he is drunk, as to frighten women upon the highway by boisterous and profane language, deserves very little consideration at the hands of decent people. A prescription cure fully compounded in the grand jury room administered in fair doses very frequently works a radical cure in such cases.”
Prior to 1850 there are only a few known references to Christmas trees in America. By the late Victorian Era elaborate Christmas trees were the centerpiece of many celebrations. They were often decorated with dried flowers and fruits, lace, bows, real candles, miniatures and even presents and confections. With such spectacular trees, no wonder referring to the actual celebration surrounding the giving of gifts as “the Christmas tree” was common in the vintage reports. A century later, the phrase is still widely used in Giles County, where one might hear ”We’re having our tree tonight” or some similar declaration.
“The Christmas tree was a decided success and many little hearts were made glad,” Bethel’s correspondent reported about the community’s 1895 Christmas celebration.
A report from the 1896 New Years Eve Citizen, told about Master John Averitt Rivers “giving a tree with a real live Santa to which several boys and girls of his own age was invited.”
It was also noted that “Pulaski had entertainments of a semi-public character.” One was held at the Methodist Church, which had two trees, both “filled with knickknacks and toys for the little people and beautifully decorated.” The other event was at the Presbyterian church where a large chimney had been constructed of red boxes filled with nuts and candies “for the little folks.” Two long ladders were decorated and loaded with presents.
A December 1897 report was more detailed. It said, “All the churches here with one exception entertained their little folks Friday afternoon and evening. At 3:30 the Methodist Sunday School met at Mrs. C. T. Reid’s and after several recitations appropriate to the occasion, presents were distributed from a pretty little tree in Mrs. Reid’s parlor.
“At 5:30 the Church of Christ entertained a large audience with songs and recitation by the smaller Sunday school children, after which a genuine Santa came down the chimney of a miniature house erected on the pulpit and delighted many little hearts by distributing candies, oranges, books, calenders, games, etc. “At the close of this the people congregated at the Presbyterian church and witnessed the exercises there. The church was decorated for the occasion, the choir sang several beautiful songs after the opening prayer, then was a pretty drill by the little girls, several recitations were heard and the Santa Claus distributed presents, dolls, books, toys, etc., closing a beautiful tableau. So often I have seen a few go away from these entertainments laden with gifts while others received nothing, but it was notable that at these, all seemed to receive the same consideration.”
Fireworks were as customary at Victorian Christmas events are they are now on July 4. One correspondent lamented the week after Christmas that “the turkey is gone and the fireworks are over,” and many tiny advertisements offered fireworks for sale.
In the Victorian era a new past time, Christmas shopping, became fashionable with stores staying open until midnight in metropolitan areas. In Giles County, however, the sole advertiser to even mention the holiday in the November 18, 1896, Citizen was J. F. Turner. Hovering over an offer of box stoves for $6 was one line proclaiming “See our Christmas Goods.”
A few weeks later, The Racket’s no non-sense ad listed a number of possible gift items, still making no reference to Christmas. Six different kinds of dolls, doll chamber sets and tea sets, musical instruments, banks, trains, building blocks, wagons, mechanical monkeys and dogs, games, stick and rocking horses and boats were suggested.
It wasn’t until the December 5, 1898, Citizen that Santa’s visage even appeared, and that was only in the Reeves Drug Store ad. Among the wares recommended as Christmas gifts were magic lanterns, manicure sets, toilet cases and musical instruments.
One advertisement which recurred throughout the winter Citizens was for a product to cure “The Hacking Cough.” Readers a century later would gladly hand over the 5 cents for this remedy.
More than a 100 years ago the community correspondent from Tarpley summed up the sentiments so often expressed today when he wrote, “The celebration of the anniversary of our Lord’s nativity partakes so much of the character of the old Roman saturnalia that is doubtful whether we should be called a Christian or a heathen people. This season is more often profaned than improved. Instead of being a season of real devotion, it is made an occasion of great diversion. The luxury, extravagance, intemperance, obscene pleasure and drunkenness are only so many proofs of the low estimation we place upon the character of the God we serve. A nation’s religion is commensurate with its ideal deity; and for a people that bear the name of Christians to act as if, because the Son of God at this time became a man, it were fit for a man to make himself a brute, is a monstrosity. But enough of this moralizing.”